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Richard Webb; Played ‘Captain Midnight’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Webb, known to millions of television viewers in the 1950s as “Captain Midnight,” pilot of the Silver Dart and leader of the Secret Squadron waging “the struggle against evil men everywhere,” has died. He was 77.

Webb, who had suffered a long, debilitating respiratory illness, shot himself to death Thursday night in his Van Nuys home, his wife, Florence, said Friday. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office said Webb left a note citing his failing health as the reason for his suicide.

An estimated 6 million children and 10 million adults faithfully watched the adventures of Captain Midnight and his sidekick, Ichabod Mudd, fighting evil with an arsenal of scientific gadgetry and derring-do. The program, which grew out of a radio version, ran on CBS from September, 1954, to May, 1956.

To become a member of the Secret Squadron, fans had only to mail in a coupon from a jar of Ovaltine, the drink that sponsored the show. The series was syndicated under the title “Jet Jackson, Flying Commando” until 1958.

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In 1986, the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington recognized Captain Midnight with a display of items from the program. Webb told the Los Angeles Times he donated his character’s scarf, trousers, boots, belt, decoder pin and “everything but the undershorts.”

Webb, who appeared in more than 60 films and 260 television programs, also starred as Deputy Chief Don Jagger on the CBS series “Border Patrol,” which ran from 1958 to 1960.

Sometimes the line between scripts and reality blurred for the Bloomington, Ill., native who started out to become a Methodist minister.

In 1959, two insurance salesmen threatened to sue him after the television spy-catcher made a “citizen’s arrest” of the two during an airplane flight from New Orleans to Miami, claiming they were Russian spies. Police said Webb had been drinking at the time.

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A year later, police were summoned to Webb’s Van Nuys home when neighbors said he was firing a revolver. He was charged with disturbing the peace after police confiscated four rifles, three shotguns, 26 pistols and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

Webb was fined $150, placed on two years probation and ordered to abstain from using alcohol.

At his death, his wife said Webb had been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 33 years.

Columnist Hedda Hopper first described the husky, blond, 6-foot-2, 190-pound Webb as “a new young Gable.” Webb’s early films included “I Wanted Wings,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” “A Connecticut Yankee,” “Sands of Iwo Jima” and “The Nebraskan.”

Webb’s greatest success came and went with the 1950s. His last appearances included the science fiction film “Beware the Blob,” directed by Larry Hagman in 1972, and the cable television program “Mysteries From Beyond,” with Franklin Ruehl in 1989.

In his later years Webb wrote four books, “Great Ghosts of the West,” “Voices From Another World” and “These Came Back,” about psychic phenomena and the occult, and “The Laughs on Hollywood,” a collection of anecdotes about the entertainment industry.

“Midnight is a legend now,” Webb told The Times in 1992. “I did a lot of movies and television, but Captain Midnight is one and above all the rest of them. And I was Captain Midnight.”

Besides his wife, he is survived by two daughters, four grandchildren and a great-grandson. No funeral services are planned.

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