Dan Aykroyd was a titan of comedy in the 80s. One among a number of stars who had made the transition from top-rated TV show Saturday Night Live to big screen success, the Canadian funnyman’s era-defining hits included The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters. By contrast, in the mid-80s Tom Hanks was a respected but relatively small-scale actor, whose career had to that point given little indication of the awards-laden icon he would become.
Aykroyd and Hanks joined forces on 1987’s Dragnet, a tongue-in-cheek big screen adaptation of the long-running TV, radio and movie series dating back to the 50s. The result was a fast, fun yet distinctly outlandish take on the buddy cop comedy thrillers that were all the rage in the 80s.
As Joe Friday would put it, here are “just the facts” on 1987’s Dragnet.
20. Dan Aykroyd previously played Joe Friday in a Saturday Night Live sketch
Dan Aykroyd’s 1980 hit The Blues Brothers had started life as a recurring skit on Saturday Night Live.
So too does Dragnet have its roots in SNL, Aykroyd first having done his Joe Friday routine in a sketch on the well-loved comedy show back in 1976.
It was on the strength of this – plus Aykroyd’s overall popularity off the back of Ghostbusters – that studio Universal approached him with the offer of writing and starring in Dragnet.
Aykroyd recalls his interest was so great that he “made a deal to write the script the next week.”
The movie posits that Aykroyd’s Sgt Joe Friday is the nephew of the original Joe Friday, played in all the previous iterations by Jack Webb, who was also Dragnet’s creator. Webb passed away in 1982, five years before the movie was made.
19. It’s actually the second Dragnet movie
1987’s Dragnet was a high profile adaptation of a popular TV show, but it wasn’t the first time the property had made it to the big screen.
Following Dragnet’s success as both a radio drama then a TV series, the first Dragnet movie was released to theatres in 1954.
As well as once again playing the lead role of Joe Friday, Dragnet’s creator Jack Webb also directed the feature.
A second Dragnet movie was made specifically for television in 1966 (although not screened until 1969), as a pilot episode for a small-screen revival of Dragnet.
The 1987 film is the last big screen take on the property to date, but there have been two further Dragnet TV shows in 1989 and 2003.
18. Aykroyd wanted James Belushi to play Pep Streebeck
For the partner of the new Joe Friday, Aykroyd and co-writer Alan Zweibel decided to create an all-new character not seen in any previous iteration of Dragnet.
To this end they came up with Pep Streebeck, a cop with a considerably more relaxed attitude to the rules than the strictly by-the-book Friday.
Aykroyd originally had one specific actor in mind for the role of Friday’s rebellious new partner: James Belushi.
Belushi was the younger brother of Aykroyd’s sadly missed Blues Brothers co-star John, who died in 1982.
However, Belushi had to pass due to scheduling conflicts: 1987 saw the actor appear in The Principal and Real Men, before teaming up with Arnold Schwarzenegger for 1988’s Red Heat.
17. Albert Brooks was offered Streebeck before Tom Hanks signed on
Before Tom Hanks signed on to play Joe Friday’s partner, the role was also offered to Albert Brooks.
The comedy actor and filmmaker had worked with Dan Aykroyd a few years earlier, in the memorable opening sequence of Twilight Zone: The Movie.
However, Brooks declined the role of Pep Streebeck to instead taking a role in another 1987 comedy, Broadcast News.
This, it turns out, was not the last time Albert Brooks passed on a role ultimately taken by Tom Hanks – although he might have come to regret the next one a little more.
Brooks also turned down the lead in 1988’s Big, which became a huge hit and earned Hanks his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.
16. The catchphrase “Just the facts” was never actually said by Joe Friday on the Dragnet TV show
The Dragnet franchise has long been closely associated with Joe Friday’s catchphrase “just the facts,” which was featured prominently in the 1987 film and its marketing.
However, this connection between the line and the show is an erroneous one, as Jack Webb’s Friday never once used the line in the radio drama, TV show or earlier movie.
Webb is known to have used similar phrases – “all we know are the facts” and “all we want are the facts” – but never the precise phrase which has become so iconic.
Reportedly “just the facts” was actually first said in a radio parody of Dragnet by American comedian Stan Freberg.
It’s similar to how the line “Beam me up, Scotty” was mistakenly attributed to William Shatner’s Captain Kirk on Star Trek, but actually originated on the Star Trek animated series.
15. The director of First Blood was originally going to direct
Dragnet is a pretty light-hearted movie, but the director who was first attached to the film had a history in considerably harder-edged fare.
Ted Kotcheff, best known for directing Sylvester Stallone’s original Rambo movie First Blood, was initially poised to call the shots on Dragnet.
However, Kotcheff wound up bailing on the project as he didn’t like Aykroyd and Zweibel’s script.
Still, it wouldn’t seem that Kotcheff left Dragnet out of an aversion to comedy, based on some of the projects he took in the following years.
After leaving the film, Kotcheff made the 1988 Burt Reynolds comedy-thriller Switching Channels, and later called the shots on the notorious 1989 comedy Weekend At Bernie’s.
14. It was the debut of director Tom Mankiewicz
Aykroyd wrote the first draft of the Dragnet script with Alan Zweibel, but as is so often the case in Hollywood, the studio insisted on hiring another writer for revisions.
To this end, Universal brought on board Tom Mankiewicz – a well-established screenwriter whose credits include Superman and several James Bond movies – to help fine-tune the screenplay.
When Ted Kotcheff vacated the director’s chair, Mankiewicz agreed to step in and make his feature directorial debut on the film at the age of 45.
As a director, Mankiewicz would only make one more theatrically released movie: the 1991 John Candy comedy Delirious.
Mankiewicz sadly passed away aged 68 in July 2010, after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
13. Older fans and critics disliked Art of Noise’s update of the theme music
Dragnet is synonymous with its dramatic opening music (altogether now: Daah-da-DA-dah!), which is used effectively throughout the movie.
However, for the opening title sequence, the filmmakers opted to include a more up to date and ‘hip’ take on the old Dragnet theme.
British electronic band Art of Noise provided this, making use of digital sampling and computer sequencing.
While this may have lent a modern air to this new big screen take on Dragnet, it turned off some older critics.
Critic Gene Siskel bemoaned the film’s use of contemporary pop music: “they didn’t have enough confidence in the material that they had to try and hook kids in with some disco thing.”
12. Actor Harry Morgan reprises his role from the original series
Any 80s cop movie needs a cantankerous ageing captain, and Dragnet provides this in Captain Bill Gannon, played by Harry Morgan.
You might not have known that this is actually the only character in the movie carried over from the TV series.
Morgan appeared as Officer Bill Gannon in 98 episodes of Dragnet between 1967 and 1970, plus 1969 TV movie The Big Dragnet.
Universal originally approached Morgan to make a small cameo appearance as Gannon, but when he requested a more substantial part they ‘promoted’ him to captain.
In spite of his Dragnet fame, Morgan remains best known as Col. Potter on TV’s M*A*S*H*, which ran from 1974 to 1983.
11. Two other actors in the movie previously made appearances on the Dragnet TV show
Harry Morgan’s Bill Gannon may be the only character from the TV show to return in the movie, but Morgan isn’t the only Dragnet TV actor to make an appearance.
The movie features cameo roles from two other actors who previously appeared in Dragnet on television.
The first of these is Peter Leeds, who plays the scientist Roy Grest, informing Friday and Streebeck about the stolen chemicals (deep breath): trichlornitromethane and the pseudo-halogenic compound cyanogen.
The second returning actor from the show (given dialogue far easier to pronounce, but a little too coarse to repeat here) is Kathleen Freeman, who takes the role of foul-mouthed landlady Enid Borden.
This wasn’t Freeman’s first time working with Aykroyd, as she also played the stern Sister Mary Stigmata in The Blue Brothers – who, by amusing contrast with her Dragnet role, slaps John Belushi’s Jake and Aykroyd’s Elwood with a ruler for using bad language.
10. Tom Mankiewicz brought in Superman actor Jack O’Halloran
One of the most memorable characters in Dragnet is Emil Muzz, the “big, bad, stupid-looking” henchman in the employ of the villainous PAGAN group.
The role was filled by Jack O’Halloran, former heavyweight boxer who went on to a successful career playing movie bad guys.
Undefeated in his first 16 fights, O’Halloran hung up his gloves in 1974 with a record of 34-21-2.
In 1978 O’Halloran landed the role he is best remembered for: Non, the hulking henchman of General Zod in Superman and Superman II.
There’s a connection there, for as you may recall, the original Superman was co-written by Dragnet director/co-writer Tom Mankiewicz.
9. Connie Swail’s house was later used again in Desperate Housewives
When Friday and Streebeck take Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul) back to her quaint and old-fashioned home, Streebeck dryly remarks, “can the beaver come out and play?”
While this line is likely to be lost on many viewers today, it’s a reference to 50s sitcom Leave It to Beaver, which was set in a similar house.
The resemblance is not a coincidence, either, as this same house was used in an early 80s revival of the show entitled Still the Beaver.
Nor was this the end of the house’s notable screen appearances, as Hanks himself would call it home in his 1989 movie The ‘Burbs.
Later, the house (which still stands on the Universal Studios lot) was also used in TV series Desperate Housewives, as the home of Teri Hatcher’s Susan Mayer.
8. Pep Streebeck’s TV watch was a real device
One throw-away moment in Dragnet which briefly blew the minds of everyone who watched it in the 80s sees Tom Hanks’ Streebeck watching TV on his wristwatch.
Although you might not have known at the time, this was not just a gag for the movie: such a device really did exist.
The Seiko T001 was launched in 1982, and boasted a 1 ¼-inch LCD screen on which the wearer could indeed watch television.
Of course, this being early days of mobile technology, it also needed to be connected to a fairly hefty receiver to get the TV signal.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Seiko T001 never really caught on like the Sony Walkman – not least because, when launched in the US in 1983, it carried a price tag of $495 (the equivalent of almost $1200 today).
7. Friday at one point mentions We Are the World – which Dan Aykroyd actually sang on
When Friday and Streebeck meet with Dabney Coleman’s Jerry Cesar at his Playboy Mansion-esque home, the disgusted Friday laments the presence of “a modern-day Gomorrah smack-dab in the middle of the same city where they recorded We Are the World.”
Released in 1985, We Are the World was a charity single written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, performed by specially formed supergroup USA for Africa.
One member of this musical ensemble was, in fact, Dan Aykroyd himself – one of the few singers on the record not known primarily for music.
Aykroyd has explained in years since that he wound up on We Are the World “totally by accident,” after a chance meeting with a talent manager resulted in an invitation to sit in on the recording session.
As well as Aykroyd, Jackson and Richie, other stars who sang on We Are the World include Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nelson and Tina Turner.
6. Connie Swail actress Alexandra Paul was jailed for nuclear protesting before shooting began
Actress Alexandra Paul was cast in Dragnet as the ultra-innocent Connie Swail (or, as Aykroyd’s Friday frequently addresses her, ‘The Virgin Connie Swail’).
However, in reality the actress wasn’t quite so demure as the character she portrays in Dragnet.
Several months before the film was released, Paul spent four days behind bars after being arrested at an anti-nuclear testing protest in Nevada.
Paul remains an activist to this day, championing environmentalism, animal rights and gay rights, and has been arrested for civil disobedience many more times.
As an actress, Paul would find her greatest fame on TV’s Baywatch as lifeguard Stephanie Holden, a role she played from 1992 to 1997.
5. The original Joe Friday influenced Aykroyd’s entire acting style
Aykroyd says that Joe Friday was a role he had always dreamed of playing, having grown up a huge fan of Dragnet and its creator/star Jack Webb.
The comedian says, “I’ve had a fascination with Joe Friday since I was a kid. Next to Clouseau (of the Pink Panther movies), he’s the most famous cop in the world.”
Akroyd cites Webb as a huge personal influence on his own performance style, in particular his knack for reeling off incredibly complex lines of dialogue at breakneck speed.
To prepare for the role, Aykroyd says he “studied (Webb’s) speech inflections, his mannerisms, his walk.”
“During filming, I’d listen to tapes of the old shows. I even started dreaming in character.”
4. The video for end credits song City of Crime was a standalone hit on MTV
Possibly even more entertaining than Dragnet itself is the song that plays over the film’s end credits.
Entitled City of Crime, it’s an upbeat rap-rock song performed by Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks themselves (Aykroyd also having co-written the song).
The track features the actors rapping in character, broadly summarising the plot of the film, with the accompaniment of one-time Black Sabbath vocalist Glenn Hughes on the chorus.
A promotional music video was produced which got plenty of air time on MTV; it features Aykroyd and Hanks busting some dance moves, performing choreography by none other than Paula Abdul.
Dan Aykroyd had some history with singing and dancing thanks to his earlier work in The Blues Brothers, but giving such a performance was and remains a comparatively rare experience for Tom Hanks.
The subsequent two-time Oscar-winning actor says he feels “repulsed and fascinated at the same time” watching the clip again today, although he’s also demonstrated in TV interviews that he still remembers most of the words.
3. It has a rather bizarre-sounding alternate title in Germany
Hollywood product may be distributed worldwide, but sometimes the titles get lost in the translation.
As ‘Dragnet’ doesn’t really mean anything in Germany, the film was given a new title that’s a bit more of a mouthful.
To German-speaking audiences, the 1987 cop comedy is known as Schlappe Bullen Beißen Nicht.
Google Translate handily informs us that the literal meaning of this in English is ‘Weak Bulls Don’t Bite.’
Quite how this relates to the movie we’re not entirely sure. But hey, it was the 80s; it’s not like such movie titles as Lethal Weapon or Die Hard had any real pertinence to the plot of the films in question.
2. The nunchucks scene was cut in the UK because any depiction of the weapon was banned in the country
The 80s was quite a different time when it came to what was deemed acceptable in a PG-rated film.
Dragnet was rated a PG-13 in the US, but in Britain – where the equivalent 12 certificate was not introduced until 1989 – the film was passed with a PG after 20 seconds of cuts.
Perhaps surprisingly, the cuts in question did not reduce the film’s level of bad language, violence, sex and drugs references, or even a fairly lengthy scene set in a strip club.
Instead, the British Board of Film Classification demanded cuts to the scene when Aykroyd’s Friday faces off against a street thug armed with nunchucks, as any use of this weapon on film was forbidden in the UK at the time.
This law has since been changed, and Dragnet is now available to view in Britain completely uncut.
1. It kick-started a new subgenre of comedy films based on old TV shows
With box office takings of $57 million off the back of a $20 million budget, Dragnet was a reasonable success, but not exactly a blockbuster.
Even so, the film proved surprisingly influential in that it was the first big screen adaptation of a TV property to serve at once as an extension and a parody of the source material.
Within a few years of Dragnet, this kind of adaptation was commonplace, to such an extent that it could be considered a whole new subgenre of comedy films.
In the decade that followed Dragnet, tongue-in-cheek big screen updates of TV shows included The Addams Family movies, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Brady Bunch Movie.
In more recent years we’ve seen a similar approach taken with 21 Jump Street and its sequel, plus CHiPs, Baywatch and more besides.