Sgt. Pepper vs. Sgt. Friday — How “Dragnet” Battled the Counterculture

Garry Berman
18 min readOct 3, 2023

Those 1960s sure were something, weren’t they? Even if you were just a child at the time, or perhaps not even born yet, chances are better than good that you know at least some of what transpired throughout that particular decade, which saw enough changes and shifts in American popular culture to keep authors, historians, and college professors busy in the years since the ’60s came to a close.

Just take a look at how music, television, fashion, social attitudes, and myriad of other elements changed between 1960 and 1970. Films, TV, and music began to reflect the often-turbulent developments in American society throughout the decade.

On television, just as the ’60s began in black & white and ended with all programs produced and broadcast in color, the content of those programs couldn’t help but to gradually reflect more of the real world with each passing year.

One program in particular, Dragnet — created and produced by, and starring Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday — originated on radio in 1949, then enjoyed an 8-year run beginning in 1951, during which Webb offered viewers an earnest, realistic view of police work, with each episode based on real LAPD case files. His stiff, no-nonsense style, as both actor and director, became legendary, and often the butt of parody.

From the 1950s incarnation of the series.

Between the end of Dragnet’s first run in 1959, and its revival in January of 1967 (the first TV series to have a second network run), the pop culture landscape in America had become quite a different place and was growing more tumultuous with each passing year. Dr. Martin Luther King led the nationwide struggle for Civil Rights, both before and after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After the JFK assassination in November of 1963, The Vietnam War — with its continuing expansion and rising death toll — grew more prominent in our collective consciousness, leading to protests on college campuses and elsewhere.

The increasing popularity with recreational drugs among young people — from marijuana to LSD and more — became more influential in music and other creative means of expression. The new ‘counterculture” was viewed by many of the older generation as an ominous danger to society in general.

And this did not sit well with conservative Jack Webb.

For some perspective, here is a chronology of events that prompted Webb (who was only 47 when he revived Dragnet) and his alter-ego Joe Friday to wage war on the younger generation in the ’60s:

In the U.K., the Beatles released their landmark album Revolver in August of 1966. Still regarded as among the top rock albums of all time, Revolver includes the first indications in song that at least some of the Beatles were delving deeper into mind-expanding substances since being introduced to them the previous year.

“She Said, She Said,” “Doctor Robert,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” (all John Lennon compositions), either allude to or directly acknowledge LSD as their inspiration. Whether or not their fans were aware of this at the time, the songs contributed to the overall near perfection of the album, as the Beatles continued to evolve, releasing one masterpiece after another.

Britain’s Home Secretary declared LSD illegal in 1966, but that didn’t discourage the more prominent figures in the British art and music scene from continuing their explorations and incorporating their “trips” into their artistic efforts.

And, while the Beatles themselves never claimed to be leaders in the growing counterculture movement, millions of their fans saw it differently. Photos of the group at the time revealed how they were allowing their hair to grow even longer than in their “mop top” days only two years before; their fashion choices veered toward brighter colors, designs, and accessory styles. Their fans adopted many of the same changes.

The Beatles’ music was certainly presenting us with new sounds and unconventional lyrics and subject matter as well. British and American groups, including Cream, The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, and others, followed suit.

On January 12, 1967, as the so-called drug culture attracted more attention in the media, the new Dragnet 1967 premiered on NBC. While the stories, as with those in the original series, were based on actual LAPD files, Webb and his writers took considerable artistic license in a seemingly deliberate effort to portray the younger generation of the late Sixties in as poor a light as possible.

Webb’s own image could be described as “Nixonian” — in appearance, attitude, politics, and overall squareness. His disdain for the young people who embraced or experimented with the counterculture and its practices, was painfully obvious (or laughably obvious, depending on your perspective) on Dragnet, beginning with the very first episode.

In the story, Sergeant Joe Friday and his partner Bill Gannon investigate a freaked-out young LSD user, known as “Blue Boy,” due to his drug-fueled act of painting half of his face blue, the other half yellow, and babbling incoherent phrases while on his trip (they find him in a park, face-down in the dirt). LSD was not yet classified as a controlled substance, so our plainclothesmen were powerless to do much about it. The episode ends with the boy fatally overdosing (in 1997, TV Guide ranked this episode #85 on its list of the 100 Greatest Episodes).

While a majority of the Dragnet episodes throughout its run dealt with many aspects of crime and police work — investigating fraud, burglary, murder, and dealing with issues within the LAPD itself, such as personnel problems, departmental procedures, and other glimpses into how law enforcement works, Webb’s attitude toward the younger generation, ranging roughly from their mid-teens to late twenties, was clear from that first episode: kids were either straightlaced, well-groomed, and respectful young adults — if hopelessly dull and square — or they were shaggy-haired, unkempt hippies sporting love beads, while indulging in drugs and clashing with conventional values and laws. There was no middle ground on Dragnet.

And the schism would only widen from the first episode onward.

On January 14, 1967, artist Michael Bowen and poet Allen Cohen held the “Human Be-In” at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Speakers including Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg shared the stage with The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. The purpose of the gathering, other than to partake in various hallucinogens, was to simply “be,” to “make love, not war,” and celebrate each other in peace. San Francisco was fast becoming the heart of the counterculture movement, particularly in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, but Be-Ins and Love-Ins began springing up across the country.

One month after that first Be-In, the Beatles released the double-A side single “Penny Lane”/Strawberry Fields Forever,” as precursors to their new album, of which they had been fairly tight-lipped, and were spending an unprecedented number of hours recording in the studio.

From the “Strawberry Fields Forever” promo film.

The accompanying promotional films for the songs on the single include strange, experimental filming techniques and images (especially in “Strawberry Fields Forever”), hinting again at the role drugs had been playing to varying degrees in some — but certainly not all — of the group’s newer songs.

Be-Ins began to take place with some regularity on Boston Commons throughout 1967. In New York, on March 26, over 10,000 congregated in Central Park for an Easter Sunday Be-In. The event was organized by Paul Williams, a college student who had founded Crawdaddy magazine the year before, and actor Jim Fouratt (who would co-founded the Yippies the following year).

On May 13, singer Scott McKenzie released the single “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” written by John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas.

The song, used to promote the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival, served as a call to the hippies and flower children of the world to converge on San Francisco to — well, the actual purpose remained a bit vague. Nonetheless, the pilgrimage began. Young people began to descend on the city by the tens of thousands.

Less than two weeks after the release of “San Francisco,” the Beatles’ groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band hit the stores, and turned the rock music world on its head. The album cover itself, with the Beatles in brightly colored satin marching band uniforms, standing before a cardboard cutout crowd of celebrities and historic figures, perfectly reflected the burst of musical creativity contained inside, with songs that were among the most experimental and imaginative ever created by a rock group at the time. Music critics, musicians, and average listeners became mesmerized by the myriad of new music, sound effects, and surreal lyrics swirling throughout the tracks on the LP.

Just over a week later, what has been described as the first American hippie-style rock festival, named the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, was held on June 10–11 in Marin County, California, produced by radio station KFRC. Star performers included the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Canned Heat, Hugh Masekela, and the Byrds.

Another week later, on June 16–18, the Monterey International Festival took place at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. The festival boasted a line-up of thirty performers on the bill:

The Summer of Love had arrived, and the Flower Power movement was just getting started.

On June 25, the Beatles were among the acts appearing on the live “Our World” television program, seen by an estimated 400 million viewers worldwide. The program consisted of short films, performances, and other types of on-air segments from around the globe. The Beatles sang “All You Need is Love” from Abbey Road studios, with fans including Mick Jagger at their feet, singing along.

“All You Need is Love” was released as a single in the UK on July 7, and in the U.S. on July 17.

In August, the hippie pilgrimage to San Francisco had intrigued George Harrison and his wife Pattie Boyd, who had been in L.A., with plans to visit Pattie’s sister Jenny in San Francisco. Along with Beatles assistants Derek Taylor and Neil Aspinall, they flew via private Lear jet, and continued by rented limousine (thus putting a dent in the myth that the Beatles were really just like the rest of us), to check out the happenings in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

Pattie writes in her memoir, Wonderful Tonight, of their arrival that day, after they had all taken some LSD, which to them actually seemed appropriate for the locale:

George strums a few chords as Pattie, Derek Taylor (far right) and disciples take it all in.

“We were expecting Haight-Ashbury to be special, a creative and artistic place, filled with Beautiful People, but it was horrible — full of ghastly dropouts, bums, and spotty youths, all out of their brains.” As one could guess, once word of George’s presence spread, a sort of well-intentioned chaos ensued. “Everybody looked stoned — even mothers and babies — and they were so close behind us they were treading on the backs of our heels. It got to the point where we couldn’t stop for fear of being trampled.”

For George and Pattie, it was certainly not a scene usually associated with the mythic stories of Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love. Could Jack Webb have been right after all?

Speaking of which, back in the land of Dragnet, Webb’s pushback on the youth counterculture continued, in the form of further episodes that broadly portrayed those who used or experimented with drugs as little more than spaced-out hippies who spent most of their days getting high and/or hallucinating. Webb considered the use of marijuana by this upstart generation to be the root (or weed) of all evil, preferring to demonize pot as the gateway drug to harder drugs such as barbiturates, LSD and heroin.

On October 16, 1967, over 5,000 people, many of draft age, rallied on Boston Common to protest the war. The participants marched from the Common to the Arlington Street Church, where they filled the sanctuary. The overflow crowd of 3,000 listened to the sermons over loudspeakers. At the end of the service, over 280 men came forward and turned in or burned their draft cards.

Meanwhile, war protests across the country continued to gain steam. On October 21, 75,000 anti-war protesters surrounded the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Michael Bowen arranged to have 200 lbs. of daisies distributed to the protesters as the Military Police guarded the Pentagon from the massive demonstration.

A famous photograph, “Flower Power”, taken by photojournalist Bernie Boston, showed some protesters daintily slipping daisy stems into the soldiers’ gun barrels (the photo was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1968).

On November 2, Dragnet continued its war on marijuana with the episode "The Big High,” written by David H. Vowell. In the episode, an older businessman, concerned about the welfare of his grandchild, informs Friday and Gannon that his daughter and son-in-law, the Shipley’s, are using marijuana regularly, and “practically bragging about it.”

A visit to the couple’s home leads to a debate between the officers and the husband, who doesn’t see the big deal about smoking pot, and predicts that his generation will eventually change many of the laws prohibiting its use. Of course, he is presented as smug and unlikeable, as Friday and Gannon exchange knowing smirks as he expresses his point of view, before Friday launches into his apocalyptic scenario of what’s in store for the average pot smoker:

At the episode’s end, in fine Dragnet tradition, the petulant young couple get their ultimate comeuppance. When Friday and Gannon return to their home, they find the young parents and friends in the living room, stoned and barely coherent. Where is their 3-year-old daughter? To everyone’s horror, the unattended child is discovered to have drowned in a bathtub.

One week later, on November 9, Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone magazine published its first issue, with John Lennon on the cover (a photo from his appearance in the Richard Lester film How I Won the War).

Shortly after the New Year, on January 11, 1968, Dragnet aired "The Big Prophet” episode, also written by David H. Vowell. In the story, Friday and Gannon are convinced that “Brother” William Bentley, a man convicted of defrauding elderly ladies of their pension checks, is operating the Temple of the Expanded Mind as a front for him to sell LSD to the students of a nearby elementary school.

Virtually the entire episode consists of their debate with the ersatz Timothy Leary character about the evils — or value — of mind-expanding drugs.

Later in the story, we learn of Bentley’s arrest for attempting to sell narcotics to a minor.

"The Big Departure,” written by Preston Wood, aired on March 7. In this episode, Friday and Gannon investigate a series of thefts and burglaries from various stores across the city. They note the thefts appear to be basic necessities, such as food, tools, camping gear, and medicine. They eventually track down a group of smart aleck teens (sporting paisley shirts, Nehru jackets, and love beads, naturally) who plan to drop out of society and create their own utopia.

Friday and Gannon promptly poke holes in their plan by pointing out how impractical it is, and how ignorant the young people are by rejecting even basic needs and services necessary to survive. The episode ends with their arrests for burglary. And boy, do they feel stupid.

On April 4, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Dragnet devoted an episode to how the LAPD prepared for possible riots in the city, pointing out in the closing moments that L.A. had remained calm that night, without violence.

Just two months later, on June 6, Robert F. Kennedy, the leading Democratic presidential candidate at the time, was assassinated after his speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, sending the nation into even further despair and turmoil.

In September, the Dragnet episode “Public Affairs” aired. The story sees Friday and Gannon invited to appear on a television show to debate police issues with a social professor and a hippie activist. Howard Hesseman, as the activist, repeatedly blames “the Establishment” for society’s ills, while his companion in the debate speaks out against police brutality.

Even the host of the program, donning love beads, doesn’t do much to come to Friday and Gannon’s defense. The studio audience mocks the cops until Friday gives his — wait for it — lengthy speech about the value of police officers to the community at large.

On October 24, 1968, possession of LSD was made illegal in the United States.

On August 15–18, 1969, the most legendary rock festival of all time, Woodstock, represented both the apex of the counterculture/hippie era, and the beginning of its inevitable decline.

On October 23, Dragnet presented the episode “Juvenile — The Little Pusher” written by James Doherty. Friday and Gannon investigate the drug overdose of a 12-year-old seventh grader. They address a group of school teachers about the most popular drugs being used by their students, what barbiturate pills look like, what burning pot smells like, etc.

Interestingly, when an occasional character on the program confronts Sgt. Friday with the argument that pot smoking is no worse than indulging in alcohol socially, Dragnet’s righteousness suddenly becomes somewhat clouded, with clumsy attempts to sidestep the comparison, such as when one of the school’s teachers in the episode “Juvenile — The Little Pusher” challenges the idea that pot is any worse to consume than alcohol. Friday responds with his mental database of statistics before finally getting to the point:

“Between five and six million people in this country are physically and mentally sick as a result of their use of alcohol. The National Safety Council estimates that on the highways, liquor-caused property damage amounts to $4 billion annually. As long ago as 1965, 29,400 Americans died on the highways in alcohol-related accidents. Now I think it’s safe to assume that figure is even larger today. Now let me ask you — if marijuana possesses even half the potential of alcohol for violence, criminality, accidents, and social degradation…do we need pot?”

His challenger then casts his head downward in defeat.

But what of Sgt. Friday’s logic here? The flipside of his own argument is that alcohol abuse poses more than twice the danger to society than pot use, but Dragnet aired just a single episode dealing with the tragic consequences of drunk driving.

[personal disclaimer: I do not drink alcohol, and never have; I do not take recreational drugs, and never have.]

The scene in “Juvenile — The Little Pusher” ends with one teacher smelling the artificial pot sample and declaring that she had smelled it before — in the girls’ restroom at the school! We see the other teachers aghast, as a dramatic musical sting takes us to the commercial break. The trail leads to a hippie’s boarding house, and off-camera, a death by overdose.

The November 5 episode, “Narcotics,” written by Burt Prelutsky, begins after a teenage boy has had a bad LSD trip, prompting a local businessman to present his idea to the LAPD to assist teenagers in promoting a drug-free lifestyle rather than one of indulging in narcotics. The clean-cut teens who have taken up the anti-drug campaign may as well have been visiting from the set of The Lawrence Welk Show.

A month later, on December 6, the rock festival era as it had existed for the previous two years came to a tragic end at the Altamont Free Concert. Bands including Santana, the Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the Rolling Stones performed onstage (the Grateful Dead were scheduled but backed out as they saw the crowd grow increasingly hostile as the day and evening wore on). The incomprehensible mistake of using the Hell’s Angels for security at the concert only threw gasoline on the fire.

The event turned increasingly violent, with many scuffles, fistfights and injuries occurring throughout the crowd of 300,000 — culminating, during the Stones’ set, in the stabbing death of a young man in the crowd named Meredith Hunter by one of the Hell’s Angels. The deaths of three other attendees also occurred throughout the grounds.

Back on Dragnet, the episode "Narco — Missing Hype” by Michael Donovan aired on January 8, 1970. This episode focuses on drugs, paying particular attention to addiction symptoms. Friday and Gannon take a special interest in a young addict Friday had saved from an overdose sometime before. The guy had been out of rehab for six months and looks to be using again. Friday wants to get to him before the situation gets worse.

On March 19, the series aired "D.H.Q. — Night School” by Dick Morgan. The somewhat offbeat episode has night school student Joe Friday making an off-duty arrest of a fellow student for possession of marijuana after their class.

The professor later asks the class to vote on whether or not Friday should be expelled from the class. The initial vote count rules against him, but Friday asks for a chance to plead his case to the students before a second vote is taken. The ridiculous proceeding is interrupted when another student, a lawyer, reminds the professor that he has no legal right to throw Friday out of the class, and the lawyer threatens to initiate his own lawsuit against the school if necessary. Friday is then reluctantly welcomed back to the class.

The 98th and final Dragnet episode aired April 16, 1970. After Dragnet, Jack Webb went on to produce the series Adam-12 and Emergency, among others.

On May 4, a massacre occurred on the campus of Kent State University, when four students at a rally protesting the war expanding into Cambodia were killed, and nine wounded, by twenty-eight soldiers of the Ohio National Guard who opened fire on the crowd.

The tragedy sent shock waves through the country. If there had been any doubt about the end of the era of Love-Ins, peaceful protests, and all other aspects that contributed to the pop culture of the late Sixties, this incident put that doubt to rest.

Jack Webb died on December 23, 1982 at the age of 62. The LAPD gave him a funeral with full police honors, and Chief Daryl Gates announced that badge number 714, which was used by Joe Friday in Dragnet, would be retired. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley ordered all flags lowered to half- staff in Webb’s honor for a day.

In November 2020, Oregon became the first U.S. state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of LSD, after voters approved Ballot Measure 110.

At the federal level, marijuana remains prohibited for any use under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. However, the Justice Department has generally not enforced federal law in states that have legalized recreational cannabis. As of May 2023, non-medicinal use of marijuana is legalized in 23 states, and several U.S. owned territories, and decriminalized in 8 states.

And the hippies? They’ve been collecting Social Security.

Until next time…

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Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.