The Detectives

Cowboys did most of the television detecting during the 50's with policework left almost exclusively to Sgt. Friday on Dragnet, the show with the four-note opening that became so familiar it was a punchline. I'm including Perry Mason here, too, although he was a lawyer and Paul Drake was his detective. Still, he almost invariably had to find out who dunnit since his clients were—with a mere three exceptions—always innocent. Let me know what shows I've overlooked or leave a suggestion in the Message Forum.



Sgt. Friday was not the most likable detective ever created, but, boy, was the series popular. Dragnet was based on a radio series of the same name, and both were created by their star, Jack Webb. The famous musical introduction to the show was composed by Walter Schumann and derived from Miklos Rozsa's score for the 1946 film The Killers.

The television series debuted in 1951 and lasted until 1959 in its original black-and-white form. It was revived in color in 1967 and lasted until 1970 when it was abandoned by Webb so he could work on other projects.

Though he'd been comfortable with the role on radio, Webb originally balked at the idea of playing Joe Friday on television. He'd hoped to cast Lloyd Nolan in the role, but the network thought Webb's distinctive voice and characteristically laconic style was too familiar and insisted he take the television role.

The original series took a documentary approach with Sgt. Friday often in the seedy side of Los Angeles facing a steady succession of callous fugitives, desperate gunmen, slippery swindlers, and hard-bitten women. Actors such as Martin Milner and Lee Marvin made early appearances on the show, and Raymond Burr briefly played Friday's superior, Captain Thad Mumford, before he became Perry Mason.

Dragnet was an enormous popular success and won 5 primetime Emmy's. It was most famous for its theme music, the phrase "Just the facts, Ma'am," and Sgt. Friday's monotone.

We get two out of those three in this clip of the show's opening:

Many of the episodes of Dragnet from the 50s are available on YouTube. You can start here:


Perry Mason

The first episode of Perry Mason aired on CBS in September, 1957. The series lasted until 1966. It was Hollywood’s first weekly one-hour series filmed for television and remains one of the longest-running and most successful legal-themed television series ever. 

Many of the episodes, especially in the early years, borrowed heavily from the stories written by Mason’s creator, the novelist Erle Stanley Gardner. The plots almost invariably fell neatly into two halves: the first half hour was devoted to introducing the suspects and inspecting the crime, the second half hour featured Mason in court, often with diversions dedicated to the pursuit of further leads if the court proceedings were going badly. Almost inevitably, the guilty party was discovered and charges against Mason’s client were dismissed. The three exceptions were "The Case of the Terrified Typist," The Case of the Witless Witness," and "The Case of the Deadly Verdict."

There were hundreds of actors who auditioned for the role of Perry Mason, and Richard Carlson, Mike Connors, Richard Egan, William Holden, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Fred MacMurray were among those considered. However, Gail Patrick Jackson, the show’s executive producer, said they couldn’t afford a big star. She’d been impressed with Raymond Burr’s performance in the 1951 film A Place in the Sun, and after he auditioned for the role of district attorney Paul Drake, she told him he was perfect for the title role but at least 60 pounds overweight. After a month of crash dieting, he won the role over a field of 50 finalists.

The theme music for Perry Mason is still almost as immediately recognizable as Dragnet’s. Composer Fred Steiner set out to write a theme projecting the two primary characteristics of the lawyer: sophistication and toughness.  The Los Angeles Times concluded he succeeded in that task: “The piece he came up with, titled ‘Park Avenue Beat,’ pulsed with the power of the big city and the swagger of a beefy hero played to perfection by actor Raymond Burr.” 

The show is still being shown in sydication on many local television stations inclluding in Omaha the MeTV station, 123 on Cox. Paramount+ has all the episodes available—join for one month free, then $5.99 monthly.