Produced and Directed by Jack Webb
Screenplay: John Robinson
Director Of Photography: Edward Colman, ASC
Music: Walter Schumann
Film Editor: William Morgan
Cast: Jack Webb (Sgt. Joe Friday), Ben Alexander (Officer Frank Smith), Diane Jergens (Miriam Hunter), Jimmy Ogg (Al Doolin), Michael Ansara (Carl Chapman), Jan Merlin (Gregory Moore), Nesdon Booth (Sam), Vic Perrin (Dr. Hall), James Stone (Charles)
Airdate: December 30, 1954
This post is part of The Jack Webb Blogathon, a celebration of his huge, and hugely influential, body of work. For more Webb on the web, appearing October 17-19, visit Dispatch (or click on the banner above).
Let’s start out with something I don’t really need to say. Dragnet began as a radio show, became a TV show, spun off a feature, took a hiatus of almost a decade, then returned for four more years. The whole shebang was the brainchild of Mr. Jack Webb.
“The Big Rod” comes from the initial 1951-59 run (“the Ben Alexander ones”). It’s a pretty standard episode. With the added bonus of hot rods.
April 7. It’s cold in Los Angeles. A pregnant woman has been killed by a hit-and-run driver in a hopped-up 1940 Ford with twin pipes and a stolen car club plate. Friday and Smith—working the day watch out of accident investigation division, hit-and-run felony unit—try to find him.
The episode was featured in the January 1955 issue of Hot Rod magazine. (That’s Webb on the cover.) Wally Parks, head of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), was committed to having hot-rodding seen as more than a bunch of hoodlums in hopped-up junkers. So it’s surprising he’d have anything to do with the story of a rodder involved in a hit-and-run. But Parks, or rather, an actor playing him is, appears in the show, helping Friday and Smith identify local car clubs. It’s made very, very clear that the culprit is not a member of the NHRA.
Al Doolin (Jimmy Ogg), president of the Square Wheels car club, speaks of the stigma against rodders and assures Friday and Smith that the clubs are dedicated to safety and that there’s no way it could be a club member.
Al Doolin: “Maybe it had twin pipes, a loud muffler, but I’ll give you odds from here to Bonneville that it wasn’t a hot rod. I know how you guys feel. We’re always gettin’ it. Every kid behind the wheel of a secondhand car is a potential killer. The way the papers picture us, we just roam around looking for somebody to run over.”
After talking to Parks, Doolin, an eyewitness, the victim’s husband (Michael Ansara) and a doctor (Vic Perrin), the car is spotted. Turns out it’s registered to an unemployed loner named Gregory Moore (Jan Merlin). He’s tracked down and arrested. At that point, we’re treated to a great diatribe from Friday.
Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb): “I’m getting fed up with you kids roaming he streets in those deathtraps of yours. I don’t care about you. You wanna wrap yourself around a post, you go ahead. We’ll try to stop you, but don’t you take somebody else with ya. We’ve tried about everything in the books to make you understand. Doesn’t look like any of ’em did any good… You killed a human being, a woman who didn’t even know you. She never even saw ya until it was too late. You threw a ton-and-a-half of metal at a 120-pound woman, then you ran away and left her in the gutter to die. You wrecked a family, you tore it right down the middle and rolled over it. You’re ruined the lives of all the people around that woman. You gave a group of decent kids a bad time because you stole their name. Now you get up on your feet and keep that smart mouth of your closed, you understand?”
Jan Merlin appeared in tons of TV in the 50s and 60s, often as a slimy dirtbag, and it’s surprising that this was his only Dragnet. He became an Emmy-winning writer for the soap opera Another World.
This episode’s director of photography, Edward Colman, shot the Dragnet feature (in WarnerColor) around the same time. He’d later point his camera at another hopped-up car, The Love Bug (1968).
A radio version of “The Big Rod” aired on March 16, 1954. It was adapted for TV by John Robinson, who wrote 35 scripts for the original Dragnet run and one for Dragnet 1967. Incidentally, there was a 1958 episode called “The Big Hot Rod” about the theft of hopped-up cars.
There are quite a few of the 1951-59 Dragnet shows in the public domain, and they turn up on cheap DVDs of varying quality (or lack of it) and on youtube. It’s a shame these haven’t been given the level of care Shout Factory put into the color shows.