Calling All Cars: Dragnet, M-Squad and Police Squad!

Just the facts Ma'am
When Jack Webb brought his popular radio show, Dragnet, to the infant medium of television in the early 1950s, many people had their doubts about the switch.

Webb insisted on bringing pretty much the whole radio production cast, crew and staff to the TV version.

That just wasn't the way things were usually done in those days.

Radio and TV were seen as two very different media.

Indeed, Radio's Matt Dillon, William Conrad, lost the shootout with James Arness for the starring role in TV's Gunsmoke.

But Webb stuck to his guns and Dragnet became one of the most iconic programs of TV's Golden Age.

Webb played Dragnet's lead character, Joe Friday, as a no-nonsense, by-the-book LA cop.

(Actually the closest Joe Friday came to saying "just the facts ma'am" was probably "All we know are the facts, ma'am.")

The ominous nine-note musical intro to the program became synonymous with grim, grey flannel law-enforcement.

M Squad
The success of Dragnet encouraged other TV crime dramas, one of which was M Squad, starring Lee Marvin, as Detective Lt. Frank Ballinger.

M Squad had a lot in common with Dragnet but also had some very key differences.

Both shows were about plain-clothes detectives working in big cities, Friday in LA and Ballinger in Chicago.

But while Joe Friday was strictly by-the-book, Ballinger was more of a maverick, bucking the system where necessary to ensure that justice prevailed.

Accordingly, M Squad's theme song, in sharp contrast to the blaring staccato of the Dragnet theme, was a jazzy number, composed by none other than jazz great, Count Basie.

Police Squad!

And some 25 years later, the filmmaking trio of ZAZ (Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker), still flush from their satirical success with the film Airplane!, used M Squad as a template for one of the funniest -- and most short-lived -- TV comedies of all time.

The opening sequence, action, music and narration of Police Squad, was a direct lift from the old M Squad show.

Police Squad!, starring Leslie Nielsen, was cancelled after only 4 episodes. But for a month the program was an excellent send-up of the hard-bitten cop shows of the 50's.

The central character of Police Squad! was Detective Frank Drebin, played by Leslie Nielsen in his second configuration.

The New Breed
The first configuration of Nielsen was the super-serious actor. Nielsen even starred in the Quinn Martin production, The New Breed, in 1961. His character on that program, Detective Lt. Price Adams, was every bit as street tough as Joe Friday and Frank Ballinger.

The third configuration of Nielsen, as we've seen in his later films, is the lovable Inspector Clouseau-like goof, who is the butt of every joke.

Police Squad! was built around the second configuration of Nielsen; the one who played the doctor in Airplane!; the sane too-serious inhabitant of an insane world.

Naked Gun
Though Police Squad was yanked quickly from the TV schedule, the concept had success on the big screen as the Naked Gun trilogy, where Nielsen swapped out the straight-laced TV version of Drebin for the buffoon version the character.

(Yes, that's OJ as Drebin's partner.)

Stan Freberg gets into the act.

But M Squad and Police Squad! weren't the only productions that Dragnet inspired.

Stan Freberg, one of the great comedic minds of our time, spoofed the Dragnet series on radio with a dead-on, dead-pan and hilarious take on the old Jack Webb cop show.

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