JACK WEBB: HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY TRIBUTE!

Jack Webb, the legendary TV icon who created Dragnet, Adam-12, Emergency! and more, would have been 100 years old today.  Known mostly of course for his groundbreaking radio and TV series Dragnet in which played Detective Joe Friday, his deadpan delivery and ping-pong patter became the stuff of both legend and great parody.
What’s less known about the versatile Webb was his offbeat film career. Small parts as the goateed paraplegic buddy in Marlon Brando’s film debut, The Men (1950), as well as the high-energy buddy Artie Green to William Holden’s Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard (also 1950) lead to even bigger roles in film and eventually his own cinematic pet projects. One  such bigger role before major success was You’re in the Navy Now (1951) in which he costarred with Gary Cooper in the naval comedy that marked the film debuts of such New York actors as Harvey Lembeck, Jack Warden, Charles Bronson and, wait for it…Lee Marvin.

(L-R) Gary Cooper, Lee Marvin and Jack Webb in YOU’RE IN THE NAVY NOW, aka U.S.S. TEAKETTLE.

Webb’s versatility went beyond the shows and films he created (as well as wrote, directed and starred in). He had a specifically good eye for spotting young and emerging talent that may have come from his previous film work. In Lee Marvin Point Blank, Lee’s agent Meyer Mishkin recounted to me how Webb not only went out of his way to cast Marvin in an early Dragnet episode, but what he did to ensure the episode got Marvin more work. It was an effort that at the time, may not have even been allowed by the powers that be. Such was Webb’s belief in young talent.
Best of all, was an anecdote I was able to uncover by viewing an exclusive interview Webb gave in a rare late 1960’s interview in which he describes Marvin’s hysterical professionalism during the episode’s key scene. Gotta read the book to find that out!

Lee Marvin and Jack Webb tangle in “The Big Cast” episode of DRAGNET.

Webb’s love of jazz (he was reported to have one of the greatest rare jazz record collections) was something he also shared with Lee Marvin. It made Marvin an easy choice to play clarinetist Al Gannaway in Webb’s loving tribute to 1920’s jazz, Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955). According to costar Martin Milner, Lee Marvin was the only one who avoided Webb’s direction by telling Webb he’d do a scene the way he described it, then, Marvin would perform it the way he intended all along. Milner was amazed at Marvin’s manipulative powers. Might also be the reason Marvin never appeared in any other Webb productions, like The D.I. (1957) and -30- (1957).
All in all, I think Jack Webb’s output, versatility and impressive legacy deservers remembrance. Even if you think his canon of work was campy (“You’re pretty high and far out, aren’t you? What kind of kick are you on son?”) it was certainly ground breaking and I for one was always a fan. Anything Webb did, in my opinion, was infinitely more entertaining than what came after him in the years that followed.

“This is the city…my name is Friday. I carry a badge.”

So, to Jack Webb. Happy centennial! Thanks for all the years of wonderful entertainment…intentional or not.
– Dwayne Epstein

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY PRODUCER/DIRECTOR STANLEY KRAMER

September 29, 1913, marks the birthday of the prolific producer/director Stanely Kramer, who blazed new ground in dealing with the human condition’s most pressing issues. He also helped bring to the screen some of the postwar era’s greatest actors, such as Grace Kelly, Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas and Sidney Poitier. Less remembered is the fact that he also played a highly siginificant role in the career of Lee Marvin. Early on, Kramer proved to be the one major Hollywood figure to recognize Marvin’s talent and utlized that talent to great effect for more than a decade. One of the first and most important roles in the actor’s career was an appearance on Jack Webb’s TV series, Dragnet. It was one of Marvin’s first lead roles, playing a homicidal natural foods fanatic (!) who gives Joe Friday and his partner a run for their money…..

Lee Marvin's appearance in this Dragnet episode caught the attention of producer/director Stanley Kramer.

Lee Marvin’s appearance in this Dragnet episode caught the attention of producer/director Stanley Kramer.

The actor was excellent in the role and impressed producer Webb with a hilarious anecdote recounted in Lee Marvin: Point Blank. Marvin’s agent, Meyer Mishkin, made sure to get a copy of the episode to show to all the major players in Hollywood at the time and the first to take notice was Kramer. He cast him in his first lead role as Sgt. Joe Mooney in the film Eight Iron Men based on the Broadway play A Sound Of Hunting, which had earned a film contract for Burt Lancaster in the same part. Marvin again proved to be perfect in the role, as seen below….

Left to right: Richard Kiley, Marvin and Arthur Franz. Franz had convinced to marry his first wife, Betty.

Left to right: Richard Kiley, Marvin and Arthur Franz in Eight Iron Men. Franz had convinced Marvin to marry his first wife, Betty.

Over the next several years, as Kramer continued to produce such films as The Wild One and The Caine Mutiny, he sought out Marvin to etch impressive characeterizations in roles both large and small. When Kramer decided to make his directing debut in the medical drama Not As A Stranger, as a good luck charm he cast Marvin in the small but interesting role of Brundage, a braggard med student who knew all the angles.

Over the years, Kramer took chances producing or directing such groundbreaking social issue films as Inherit the Wind (Evolution vs. Creationism), On The Beach (nuclear war), A Child is Waiting (mental retardation), and more. The two issues that he dealt with the most were the two that he believed to be at the heart of the nation’s greatest discord: racism (The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, etc.) and anti-semitism (The Juggler, Judgement at Nuremburg, etc). Producer Kramer even managed to combine both in one underrated project involving a black psychiatrist (Poitier) treating an American Nazi (Bobby Darin)!
The culmination of his belief in dealing with anti-semitism came with Ship of Fools, an epic project of pre-war Europe’s underestimation of Adolph Hitler. The film recieved mixed reviews over all, but when it came to Lee Marvin’s performance of Bil Tenney, a bigoted, misogynistic, burned out ex-ball player, the reviews were uniformly excellent in their praise….

In producer/director Stanley Kramer's Ship of Fools, Marvin managed to miraculously make his character sympathetic.

In producer/director Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools, Marvin managed to miraculously make his character sympathetic.

 

Towards the end of the film, Marvin has an amazing confrontation with screen legend Vivien Leigh which very few actors would be willing to undergo. When his character mistakes her for a prostitute he had planned a liasion with, Leigh proceeds to beat him mercilessly with the business endl of her high-heel shoe. Marvin took the beating like a pro and kept the shoe as a treasured memento!

A staged still from the climatic scene in Kramer's Ship of Fools in which Marvin takes a vicious beating from Vivien Leigh's high heel shoe.

A staged still from the climatic scene in Kramer’s Ship of Fools in which Marvin takes a vicious beating from Vivien Leigh’s high heel shoe.

I was extremely fortunate to interview the great Kramer toward the end of his life and his insight into Marvin’s persona was most impressive. He understood and knew the actor as well or maybe better than just about anybody Marvin ever worked with. All of his thoughts & opinions made it into the text of my bio and proved to be the highlight of my research. I have always been a fan of Kramer’s and his passing ( on Lee’s birthday!) is a constant reminder in today’s day and age of fluff film making that we sure could use him now….more than ever!

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