Tuesday, 3 March 2015

80 From the 80s - Dragnet


‘Just the facts’

Studio: Universal :::::::::: Release Date: 26th June 1987
Director: Tom Mankiewicz :::::::::: Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Tom Hanks
Budget: $20M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $42.5M
U.S Box Office: $57.3M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $121.7M

Summer. 1987. Joe Friday is an old school, by-the-book cop and something is rotten in the City of Angels. Working with new laid back partner, Pep Streebeck, he has to investigate a series of bizarre crimes orchestrated by P.A.G.A.N - People Against Goodness And Normalcy.  It doesn't take Joe long to realise that if wants to deal out justice, he's going to have to take a leaf out Streebeck's book, even if it means putting his precious job on the line.

The idea of taking a TV show and creating a spin-off movie isn't a new one. TV companies soon caught on that they had a built-in audience who would pay money to see their favourite characters on the big screen. In the 1970s and 80s, audiences were treated to all manner of shows that had their plots stretched to movie length - with middling results. Dragnet, released in 1987 was a different sort of beast. Based on the hugely successful TV show, it attempted to pay homage to its source, while also parodying it, taking the straight-laced police officer Joe Friday and throwing him into 1980s Los Angeles.

While it may be somewhat forgotten today, the original Dragnet was groundbreaking and incredibly influential. The show was created by Jack Webb, an actor who had begun his career in comedy with limited success. By the late 1940s, he'd switched to drama, appearing in the private detective show, Pat Novak for Hire. But it was a role in the film He Walked by Night that would play the biggest influence on Dragnet. The picture was based around the exploits of Erwin Walker, an ex-soldier who embarked on a violent crime spree in the mid-1940s, culminating in the murder of a highway patrolman. In the film, shot semi-documentary style, Webb played a crime lab technician. The background to the story gave him the idea for a police procedural series based on real life cases. With technical assistance from police chief William H. Parker and Sergeant Marty Wynn, Dragnet debuted on radio in 1949.

The show took a little time to find its feet, and the lead character of Joe Friday (portrayed by Webb) went through some changes in those first episodes. What instantly set Dragnet apart was its realism and attention to detail. It never glamorised the job, rather showing how mundane the day to day of it could be - though it was not without its action or heroics. Webb made sure the show was accurate and covered all aspects of police work, from the initial investigation and forensics, through to arrest and interview procedures. The radio programme also introduced the famous Dragnet 'Four note' theme, entitled 'Danger Ahead'. Curiously, the piece wasn't actually written for the show, but rather lifted from the 1946 film, The Killers. Each episode would open with a short announcement, informing the audience that the story they were about to hear was true, and that only the names had been changed to protect the innocent. Webb's Joe Friday would then detail his circumstances via a tightly clipped, almost rhythmic narration.  

Dragnet went on to become an incredible success, running for over 8 years and spanning 314 episodes in total. At the same time, it transferred to TV screens, beginning in 1951. Again, Webb was front and centre as Joe Friday, investigating crime in and around Los Angeles. The small screen version was even more popular than the radio show, and spawned the first theatrical Dragnet movie in 1954. The episode, The Big Little Jesus also holds the title of being the first colour TV programme shown on Network television in North America. The TV series ran for 276 episodes, coming to an end in 1959 - a decision made by Webb, though it must be noted that the show's popularity was starting to wane in its final years. The actor-director then took over detective show 77 Sunset Strip, but the changes he orchestrated (including removing all but one central cast member) alienated even the most hardened fans. After five quite successful seasons, it was cancelled mid-way through its Webb-controlled sixth. Another failure followed in the guise of Temple Houston, described by critics at the time as "Perry Mason goes west".

With a move away from Warner Bros in 1967, Webb decided to bring back Dragnet. With his partner from the original version now locked into another TV show, he hired Harry Morgan, who had played a number of parts in the Dragnet radio show, as well as making an appearance in its TV counterpart. In an effort to drum up interest, Webb shot a TV-movie, on the strength of which NBC commissioned a full series (the movie would not be screened until 1969). To differentiate itself from the original show, the Dragnet revival had its debut year added to the title (Dragnet 1967, Dragnet 1968 etc.). When the series ended four years later, Webb went on to create Adam-12, another police procedural show that focused on patrol men and women. This too proved successful and spawned the spin off, Emergency! which followed the lives of the first paramedics working for the LA County Fire department. It ran for six seasons, with Webb producing through his Mark VII company (as had happened with his previous shows).

By 1982, Webb was once again looking to bring Dragnet back. He had five scripts written, and because Harry Morgan was now contracted to AfterMASH, Webb had tapped Adam-12 star Kent McCord to be his new partner. But years of smoking and drinking, not to mention the stress of writing, directing and producing, all finally caught up and Jack Webb died on December 23, 1982 from a heart attack. In tribute, the LAPD retired Joe Friday's badge, number 714, and provided an honour guard at Webb’s funeral. The revival was scrapped, and with shows like Hill St. Blues proving popular, there was little reason for anyone else to champion it. Yet while there was no new show, old episodes of Dragnet (both the original and the 1960s series) were still in heavy rotation on network television. It was while flicking through TV channels one night that producer David Permut caught an episode. He passed it by and switched over to see Dan Aykroyd spitting out dialogue at a lightning pace on Saturday Night Live. He switched back to Dragnet, and again, back to Aykroyd and the pieces fell into place.

David Permut had made his name with the Richard Pryor: Live in Concert movie in 1979, the first ever theatrically released stand-up movie. When the idea of a Dragnet film featuring Dan Aykroyd came to him, he wasted no time. The very next day he spoke to the actor's agent, Bernie Brillstein, explaining that he wanted Aykroyd for what he envisioned as a Dragnet spoof. Brillstein committed the actor in principle immediately. Permut then called in to see Frank Price at Universal Pictures, who currently held the rights to the show. The producer recalled during an interview for The Ultimate Writer's Guide to Hollywood, that he had no screenplay or even an outline at the time of meeting with Price, and simply entered his office and hummed the famous four-bar Dragnet theme. Price knew it instantly. Permut explained that Dan Aykroyd was already on board, and it didn't take much to convince Price of the project’s potential - especially when he considered that he (Aykroyd) had had five major hits in the space of a few years. Even though he had no script, by hiring Dan Aykroyd, Permut also gained a successful screenplay writer - not to mention a huge Dragnet fan.

A Canadian native, Dan Aykroyd had made a name for himself as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, as a member of the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players" troupe. The youngest of the cast, he'd actually worked with producer Lorne Michaels back in Canada, on the short lived comedy show, The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour. The actor soon gained a reputation for his impressions, along with the many characters he created. Indeed, such was his talent and intensity that Eric Idle stated that Aykroyd was the only cast member he could see as a 'Python'. Even at this early stage in his career, he had a knack for reeling off paragraphs of information in a fast, clipped tone - something that was no accident. From an early age, he'd been obsessed with Dragnet and Jack Webb, copying his speech patterns and mannerisms, and bringing them into his own impressions and characters.

It was while working on SNL that Aykroyd first met John Belushi. The location for their meeting, a blues club in which Aykroyd was playing, set the spark that helped create The Blues Brothers. What began as a novelty segment on Saturday Night Live soon gained a life of its own, and the duo performed shows as Jake and Elwood Blues, as well as releasing an album. All of this culminated in the hit movie, The Blues Brothers, in 1980. This actually marked the second time the duo had appeared together on the silver screen, the first being the Steven Spielberg disappointment, 1941. They would star together once more, in the 1981 comedy hit, Neighbours, before Belushi died from a drug overdose in March the following year. Aykroyd continued to write and perform, with a notable turn in the 1983 hit comedy, Trading Places, opposite SNL alumni, Eddie Murphy.

Ghostbusters in 1984 cemented Dan Aykroyd's reputation, and along with Elwood Blues, the character of Ray Stantz is what he is best known for to this day. After the global success of Ghostbusters, Aykroyd appeared in two smaller films. He re-teamed with Bill Murray on Nothing Lasts Forever, a still-as-yet unreleased science fiction curio which also featured Gremlins star Zach Galligan. This was followed by the John Landis comedy-thriller Into the Night. He would work with Landis again on Spies like Us in 1985, before settling down to script Dragnet with fellow SNL writer, Alan Zweibel. Despite their experience, the writing duo struggled to get a script that both they and the studio were happy with. Universal's Frank Price, knowing the clock was ticking, turned to Tom Mankiewicz in an attempt to knock the script into a workable shape.

By the time he was brought onto the project as its third writer, Tom Mankiewicz was already a legendary script doctor, having worked officially (and unofficially) on some of Hollywood's biggest pictures. The writer was born into movies - his father was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the formidable screenwriter, producer and director. Tom made his first official Hollywood debut as third director on the John Wayne picture, The Comancheros. He received his first on-screen credit (that of Production Associate) for The Best Man, a film on which he worked numerous behind the scenes roles. Following in his father's footsteps, the young Mankiewicz turned to script writing, producing ‘Please’, the tale of a suicidal girl in the last ninety minutes of her life. Despite much interest, no studio would buy the script, but it did go some way to acting as a calling card and helped secure him work on Nancy Sinatra's Movin' with Nancy. This in turn led to him writing the book for the musical version of Georgy Girl. Unbeknownst to Mankiewicz, one of the performances was attended by David Picker, who along with Cubby Broccoli, was looking for someone to re-write Diamonds are Forever in attempt to lure back Sean Connery.

Signing on for two weeks, Mankiewicz ended up staying on Diamonds are Forever for six months, sharing a screenplay credit. He went on to script Live and Let Die and co-wrote The Man with the Golden Gun, as well as performing an uncredited re-write on The Spy Who Loved Me and contributing to Moonraker. During this period, he also turned in the screenplay for Mother, Jugs and Speed, which led to director Peter Yates hiring him to re-write The Deep. Mankiewicz was now gaining a reputation as the go-to/fix it guy for problem scripts. Richard Donner brought him aboard Superman I & II in attempt to streamline the 400 page screenplay. He'd stay with the project for more than a year, controversially receiving a creative consultant credit, which was objected to by the Screen Writers Guild. [Mankiewicz won out in the end, though did agree to have his name appear after the original screenplay writers on Superman II].  He turned his hand to TV next and was offered a deal by Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg - if he would re-write their TV movie, Double Twist, they'd let him direct it. Mankiewicz agreed and created the extended pilot for what became Hart to Hart. The feature spawned a long-running TV series, along with eight further TV movies - the last of which Mankiewicz directed (along with several episodes).

Noticing his talent, Warner Bros locked him into an exclusive deal fixing movies for them. He worked on Gremlins, The Goonies and Wargames, as well as turning in the first draft on Batman. He re-teamed with Richard Donner on Ladyhawke, receiving both a screenwriting and creative consultant credit. Leaving Warner Bros, Mankiewicz found himself contacted by Frank Price, who requested he work with Aykroyd and Zweibel on Dragnet's script. The studio weren't keen on the first draft, and to a degree, Mankiewicz agreed. He met with Aykroyd and they discussed what worked and what didn’t. A bizarre subplot involving the theft of people's kidneys (which Aykroyd claims he threw in to mess with Universal) was amongst the first things to go. All up, Dragnet went through three drafts - the original, one that Mankiewicz and Aykroyd wrote and the final one, on which Mankiewicz worked with Zweibel.

 At that point, Ted Kotcheff of First Blood fame was on board to direct, but he and the writers clashed. The things Kotcheff wanted fixing were exactly what the three writers felt worked - and vice-versa. Frustrated, Mankiewicz was about to leave the project when Price offered him the chance to direct it instead. He agreed and Dragnet entered pre-production with a price tag of $20M attached.

The key to the film was the chemistry between Joe Friday and his partner. Given that the script contained what was essentially a fish-out-of-water scenario (Friday and his 1950’s ideals in the Los Angeles of the 1980s), his partner had to represent everything he wasn't. Aykroyd, having envisioned John Belushi for the role of Pep Streebeck, pushed for his brother, James to be cast. To Mankiewicz’s relief, James Belushi wasn't available; neither was second choice, Albert Brooks. Instead they met with a young actor who'd just begun to make a name for himself. Tom Hanks had seen some success with the short lived sitcom Bosom Buddies. When the show was cancelled after its second season, a guest appearance on Happy Days brought him into contact with Ron Howard, who at the time was prepping the mermaid rom-com, Splash. Howard saw him for the part of the wisecracking brother (eventually played by John Candy) but Hanks proved he could play the lead. The film was a sleeper hit in 1984, and Hanks' career was further boosted by the success of bawdy comedy, Bachelor Party. While misfiring with Volunteers (again opposite John Candy), Hanks scored big with The Money Pit, and to a lesser degree with Nothing in Common, opposite Jackie Gleason. Mankiewicz loved that Hanks was unpretentious - he wanted the role in Dragnet because he thought it was a funny script and he'd 'love the company he'd be keeping'.

The role of the Reverend Whirley went to Christopher Plummer, while the Hugh Hefner-like Jerry Caesar was to be played by Dabney Coleman, someone who Tom Hanks had worked with on The Man with One Red Shoe, a few years earlier. Coleman met with Mankiewicz at his house, and came up with the idea that his character should be from the south and have a lisp. During the course of their meeting, Coleman revealed he'd devised a complete backstory for Ceasar - with which the director was happy to go along. Casting the 'virgin' Connie Swail proved a little tougher. At one point, Dan Aykroyd suggested his wife, Donna, but the director vetoed the choice. It was after a viewing of American Flyers that he discovered Alexandra Paul. At the time she'd appeared in a few films but had never heard of Dan Aykroyd (or Dragnet). And that was something that played to her advantage when she auditioned - her lack of 'knowledge' gave her performance a sense of innocence, exactly what the casting team where looking for in the character.

Two familiar faces rounded out the cast. Jack O'Halloran, who had worked with Mankiewicz on Superman and its sequel (playing the mute character of Non) came on board as the larger than life villain, Emil Muzz. And in a throwback to the original show, Harry Morgan signed on to reprise the role of Bill Gannon (now a captain). To further the link with the original, Dan Aykroyd would play Joe Friday, the nephew and namesake of the legendary detective. There'd be further cues and asides to the old show in the movie, such as the brand of cigarettes Friday smokes – Chesterfields, who were sponsors of the original radio show. Two further ex-Dragnet actors appeared in cameo roles - Peter Leeds would play Roy Grest while Kathleen Freeman gave a memorable turn as Enid Borden. In one final throwback to the second generation of the show, the movie's working title was Dragnet 1987. This title stuck well into the film's production, and was only altered in the final months (when promotional work began) to avoid confusing uninformed members of the public.

Shooting took place in and around Los Angeles at the tail end of 1986 and into 1987. Dragnet was set for release in the summer, and while it was Mankiewicz's first major feature, he'd had enough experience on other sets to handle filming with little issue. But one thing he did notice almost immediately was the differing acting styles of the two leads. With Dan Aykroyd, he'd get the shot on the first or second take - because after that the actor would lose his intensity. Tom Hanks on the other hand, needed three to four takes before he was up to speed. Noticing this early on in the shoot paid dividends, and allowed the first takes to concentrate on Aykroyd, before switching focus to Hanks. Both actors were equally aware of their styles and thanked Mankiewicz for coming up with the solution. In terms of characters, Aykroyd was Jack Webb/Joe Friday. He spent much time working on Webb's clipped style and rat-a-tat delivery. He'd walk around the set listening to tapes of Webb's voice and perfected it to such a tee that Harry Morgan swore blind that if he closed his eyes and listened, Jack Webb was who he heard.

With filming finished, Mankiewicz began to assemble his first edit. He didn't cut much out to begin with and asked Frank Price if he could screen the movie without feedback to get a feel for the flow. He already knew it ran much too long and not everything worked. However, unbeknownst to the assembled crew, Sid Sheinberg's son had snuck into the screening and reported back that it was a disaster - it was too long and wasn't funny. When he was confronted by Lew Wasserman (the head of Universal) over the state of the movie, Mankiewicz decided to reassemble the cast for re-shoots before continuing with his edit. The director would later state in his autobiography that those extra scenes where what pulled the film together and made it work. Ever cautious of their own portrayal, the LAPD sent off-duty officers to every screening to get their own feedback - they wanted to ensure they were being laughed with, not laughed at. Fortunately for all concerned, their opinions were positive.

Critics weren't as impressed, and the film scored only average reviews. While most found it funny, they took exception to how it differed from its source. More than a few also expressed their dislike of the re-imagined Dragnet theme, supplied by The Art of Noise. The picture was set to open at the end of June 1987. It would be up against direct competition in the guise of Mel Brooks' Spaceballs, as well as the second frame of The Witches of Eastwick.  Beverly Hills Cop 2 was also a very real threat despite being over a month old. The news didn't any get better in the following weeks either, with Innerspace, Adventures in Babysitting, Revenge of the Nerds 2 and Summer School, all set to debut before the end of July.

Dragnet came out shooting, and bested Spaceballs by almost $4M in that first weekend, taking the top spot with $10.5M. The popularity of Dan Aykroyd, plus the built-in audience awareness (and the reshoots) appeared to have paid off for Mankiewicz and Universal. A week later, it was still at number one, dropping around 33% of business from that opening weekend. A decent showing in the week meant that after only ten days, Dragnet had recouped it production costs. It slipped down two places in weekend three, up against Revenge of the Nerds 2 and the expansion of Stanley Kurbrick's Full Metal Jacket, but still managed to add another $6M to its total. After a month on general release, the film had doubled its costs and was still out to over 1,200 locations.  Nerds 2 had come and gone, and Dragnet was still clearing an average of $2M each weekend. It survived in the top ten for a total of six weeks and ended up making $57M in North America, with a further $6M overseas. In terms of the year 1987, it was the fourteenth biggest film, out grossing the likes of Outrageous Fortune, Spaceballs and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Like most movies of the time, it performed well on the home video market too.

With such a solid return on its budget, talk of a sequel soon began to circulate. However, while Dragnet was finishing its run, Tom Hanks had gone on to shoot Big, which propelled him to global stardom. After that, according to Mankiewicz, it was difficult to get him to play second fiddle to Dan Aykroyd. A number of other ideas were put forward, including having John Candy replace Hanks. A new team was brought in to write the script - the original writers having projects of their own to work on. While they were a few years from success, the Farrelly Brothers turned in a draft that had its moments, but never really gelled as a whole. In terms of feature films, that was the end of Dragnet. The show did return to TV screens in 1989 as The New Dragnet. At around the same time, another Jack Webb originated project, Adam-12 also got a new lease of life. The New Dragnet ran for 52 episodes (and crossed over with the New Adam-12). The show was resurrected once more in 2003, with Ed O'Neill as Joe Friday. It stuck to the original blueprint for the first season, before turning into more of an ensemble drama (Friday ended up being promoted, reducing his screen time). It was cancelled five episodes into its ten episode second season, with the final five shows appearing on a different network.

After Dragnet, Tom Hanks went on to become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and indeed the world. Big was a critical and financial success in 1988, which led to The Burbs and Turner & Hooch. There were a couple of misfires (Punchline, Bonfire of the Vanities) before he emerged with an incredible string of successes, beginning with A League of Their Own in 1992. By 1995 he'd won two Academy Awards (For Forrest Gump and Philadelphia) and re-teamed with Meg Ryan on Sleepless in Seattle. By the end of the 90s, he'd had nine movies earn over $100M each. The 00s saw him diversify further, and he remains one of the most successful and popular actors of the modern age.

Dan Aykroyd followed Dragnet with The Great Outdoors (opposite John Candy) and Ghostbusters 2, which while a financial success, was not as well liked as the original. He received an Academy award nomination for his turn in Driving Miss Daisy, but then watched his career almost completely derail with the directorial effort, Nothing but Trouble. In the 90s, some Saturday Night Live cast members got movies made based on their characters. Dan Aykroyd gave Coneheads a shot, but the film failed to repeat the success of similar SNL spin-offs such as Wayne's World. From that point forward, the actor seemed happy to take on supporting roles, and gave a fantastic performance in the 1997 picture, Grosse Point Blank. A year later he brought back another SNL creation - The Blue Brothers. However, Blues Brothers 2000 was a failure, making only $14M from a budget of $28M. Aykroyd continues to take on film roles, and is also part of a company selling vodka in skull shaped bottles. His hopes of a third Ghostbusters film - something long in gestation - were dashed earlier this year when an all-female reboot was announced.

Alexandra Paul went on to become a global star thanks to her work on the hit TV show, Baywatch. After the show ended, she team up with Pierce Brosnan for the action dramas, Death Train and Nightwatch, before moving on to a number of TV movie roles. She has also co-written and co-produced the documentaries Jampacked and The Cost of Cool: Finding Happiness in a Materialistic World. Christopher Plummer and Dabney Coleman continued their careers through the 90s and beyond. Coleman joined Tom Hanks in the 1998 picture, You've Got Mail, while Plummer appeared in the recent English language remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He's currently filming Remember, for director Atom Egoyan.

Tom Mankiewicz looked to be heading for the big time after Dragnet, and was set to work on Sleeping with the Enemy, before a change of guard at the studio left him out in the cold. Taking a meeting with his former agent and discussing his dissatisfaction at how things had turned out with Enemy, he managed to annoy his current agency, Mike Ovitz's uber-powerful CAA. No one would take his calls after that and he quickly found himself unemployable - a situation not helped when rumours were circulated that he was a heavy drinker and therefore unreliable. Only Richard Donner stood up for him, and helped put together the John Candy movie, Delirious. While Mankiewicz states this was the happiest filming experience he'd had, financial troubles at MGM saw it barely receive a release. He would make no further theatrical features, and only directed three more times - an episode of Tales From the Crypt, TV Movie Taking the Heat, and the final Hart to Hart film, Till Death do us Hart. He all but retired from Hollywood after that, but did once again join Richard Donner to assemble Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut in 2006. Tom Mankiewicz died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer.

There’s no denying that the partnership of Aykroyd and Hanks works well in Dragnet and means that even today, the picture can be enjoyed despite some of the references falling flat. It moves at a brisk pace and has some solid laughs, including a brilliant final pay off. Dragnet may not be as fondly remembered as Beverly Hills Cop or The Naked Gun, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of your time. 


Just a side note to say this article wouldn't have been anywhere near as detailed without the help of Tom Mankiewicz autobiography - My Life as a Mankiewicz. I'd like to also give credit to The Ultimate Writers Guide to Hollywood, which detailed how David Permut came with the idea of making a new Dragnet movie.

1 comment:

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