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'Dragnet' star gets some help from the LAPD's bug man

Jack Webb polished the department's image, and it returned the favor.

By Paul Lieberman

November 1, 2008

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Jack Webb was not yet 30 when he came up with the radio show "Dragnet" in 1949. Two years later, he brought it to the fledgling medium of TV, with its memorable dum-da-dum-dum music and opening: "The story

you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." The stories weretrue, too, for Chief William H. Parker readily shared files with a booster whose portrayal of "Just the facts, ma'am" cops was one of two ways the country was sold a new image of the LAPD.

The other was Parker's own militaristic style that emphasized crackdowns on "vice and corruption" both on the streets and within the ranks, all to promote "a moral and spiritual rebirth" of the nation.

Webb's TV series drew on all corners of the Los Angeles Police Department, but when he made a movie version in 1954, he set it in the Intelligence Division, a.k.a. the Gangster Squad. In fact, he re-created its offices down to the spittoon.

The plot had Sgt. Joe Friday trying to solve the killing of a mob figure with the help of an informant or two, a bug or two and lectures about the unfair justice system. "Why does the law always work for the guilty?" Friday asks when the hoods come before a grand jury with their rights -- "I refuse to testify . . ." -- written on slips of paper.

What's more, a female grand juror gives him a hard time on whether officers should be allowed to tap phones. "How do we know that all you policemen wouldn't be running around listening to all our conversations?" she asks.

"We would if you talked murder," Friday shoots back.

A film critic might say the

big-screen "Dragnet" suffered

from stylistic schizophrenia, mixing Webb's poker-faced earnestness with traces of film noir, with its rainy streets, dark interiors

and elusive reality. Friday and his partner are even denied the privilege of arresting the hit man --

he dies on them, of gastric cancer, a touch inspired by the L.A.

mob's Jimmy "the Weasel" Fratianno, who complained of a "hot gut."

But you had to be an insider to know that -- or how some names in the film were not invented. The real-life Capt. James Hamilton was a major character, played by craggy-faced Richard Boone, and the minor ones included a Sgt. Keeler, after Con Keeler, the squad's original bug man.

A newer bug man also got a plug: "Can Phelps meet us out there with playback equipment?" That was for electronics whiz Bert Phelps, who once turned alarm equipment from a firehouse into a device to monitor a bookie's phones. Phelps also got termite training to provide a cover for crawling under buildings. No wonder the CIA kept trying to hire him.

Phelps got a charge out of being in Webb's movie, naturally, but it also left him uneasy. For he knew the back story -- what the Santa Monica-born actor was rewarding them for.

Webb's marriage to singer Julie London had gone the way of many in Hollywood, leaving him worried how she would pursue his riches. Webb asked Capt. Hamilton

if one of his bugging experts could meet him and a private investigator at their home while she was away. The P.I. "was gonna put the wire in, and they wanted my advice," Phelps recalled. "I said: 'Whatever the captain wants me to do, OK.' So thereafter, it did

happen. He got evidence he wanted."

The lines were fuzzy in their world, but to Phelps this was a leap away from eavesdropping on Mickey Cohen. It amazed him how his LAPD bosses were so "sanctimonious" in public while secretly helping a Hollywood big shot bug his wife.

Then again, maybe they knew what they were doing by aiding Webb, for he came through for them again after the California Supreme Court, in a Gangster Squad case, issued its landmark ruling that illegally obtained evidence could no longer be used in court.

Parker went berserk over the decision, calling it "a situation long sought by the masters in the Kremlin." Both he and Webb went to Sacramento to plead with legislators to untie the hands of police. Webb's tool of persuasion? His film pointing out the idiocy of giving criminals all those rights.

paul.lieberman@latimes.com