Dan Aykroyd In Drag As Joe Friday Only The Names Have Been Changed To Protect The Innocent

Posted: July 06, 1987

He's got the walk right, the clothes right, and, most important, the manner of speech right. With his tongue planted firmly in his cheek with obvious affection, Dan Aykroyd gives the performance of his career as the namesake nephew and '80s clone of detective sergeant Joe Friday in the movie version of ''Dragnet," now playing in Philadelphia-area theaters.

On TV "Dragnet" ran from Jan. 3, 1952, to Sept. 20, 1970, with lantern- jawed, monosyllabic Jack Webb playing Joe Friday as the quintessential by- the-book lawman. His signature interrogation line: "Just the facts, ma'am." In reruns the show still survives five years after Webb's death under the title "Badge 714," the number of Friday's Los Angeles Police Department shield.

Aykroyd, 35, is the impersonator non pareil in the history of "Saturday Night Live." To cast him as Friday wearing a bland gray suit, bland gray fedora, bland white shirt, bland black tie, bland silver tie-bar, and bland black shoes is both inspired casting and costuming.

"It was expensive making me look cheap," said Aykroyd, a high-tech

freak, speaking via a Harris transmitter telephone while watching hang gliders on a Vermont hillside at a friend's vacation home.

"The suits cost $800 to look cheap, to look like something shiny that comes off the rack. I helped design those gray suits. They were custom-made to pare down my 210-pound frame so it would fit on a wide screen.

"I wore the gun all the time on the left side, so the throw in the suit is always just off a bit.

"Actually on the TV show Friday wore a lot of sport jackets," Aykroyd continued. "What we were looking for with the suits (Friday switches to an all-brown number late in the film after his love life improves) was something that looked like a uniform, a very '50s look that mirrored Joe's black-and- white approach to the law. And after playing him, boy, do I love white shirts. You know what I mean?"

Yes. The result is a smart and funny sendup of a time-warp TV show ripe for picking. It's the best movie parody since "Airplane."

"Well, based on that," Aykroyd said with a laugh, "I guess you could say I was born to play Jack Webb - quite a gift."

The rapidity with which Universal Pictures gave the go-ahead to the $22 million comedy proves that a lot of people thought Aykroyd, with his controlled, motormouth delivery, was born to play Jack Webb. His presence made the picture happen.

"The concept for the film began with a fellow named David Permut," Aykroyd said. "He's this young idea-man who sits around and thinks up ideas for films.

"Apparently he said to himself: 'Dan Aykroyd as Joe Friday.' Then Permut called Frank Price (president of Universal's motion picture division until he was fired for approving "Howard the Duck").

"About 10 minutes later," Aykroyd said, "Price called Bernie (Brillstein, Aykroyd's agent). About 10 minutes after that Bernie called me, and the very same day I was at Universal saying yes to this idea."

Playing stern Joe Friday conforms with Aykroyd's very best impersonations, his hilarious mocking of Richard Nixon and talk show host Tom Snyder. What do Nixon, Snyder, and Friday have in common? Each takes himself a bit seriously.

"They're also all from California and they say 'yassir' a lot," Aykroyd said.

Mimicking Friday's manner of speech was simply a matter of listening to recordings of it over and over again, Aykroyd said. "I carried a tape with me on the set and played it before every scene on a miniature tape deck that had a single earphone and fit in my pocket.

"The tape had long, great speeches of his, one where he brings a veteran cop who wants to quit back into the force, and a Christmas speech about a stolen Jesus.

"But I think I give more than an impersonation in the film. To me, Joe Friday ranks with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe as one of the all-time great modern detectives.

"He's a great character, born I think out of Webb's concept of what a mainstream cop was like back then, only heightened. Today, oddly enough, the real cops act like Hollywood cops, like 'Miami Vice.'

"But because Joe Friday is such a great character, playing him did require a performance. And I think I add a little to his personality, especially at the end of the picture (in a funny scene focusing on Joe's love life).

Aykroyd, of course, designed the character of Friday as carefully as the costume designer tailored Joe's suits.

"I screened 40 black-and-white episodes of the TV show and 25 in color," Aykroyd said. "As far as the walk is concerned, Friday never moved his arms. That was the whole key. His body tilted forward at about a 15-degree angle. There was very little movement in the neck except for the occasional nod and the grim disapproval of a school principal." The result is an instantly funny image of a bent-forward, robot-like man on a mission.

Coming up with a script for the film was more difficult, said Aykroyd, who wrote the first three drafts and later joined with fellow "Saturday Night Live" alum Alan Zweibel and director Tom Mankiewicz to complete the finished story.

"The challenge we had is that we wanted to be true to how straight and how funny Joe Friday was and yet have a decent crime story.

"At the same time we wanted to do a crime story that was contemporary yet not filled with the heavy violence you might expect from Webb's old shows. I screened the one movie version they did in the '50s, and it was so grim and depressing."

The result is a convoluted story that has Friday and his new, young, smart-aleck partner (Tom Hanks, cast in a nod to the young moviegoing audience) waging war on an assortment of outlandish characters -a porno magazine publisher, a TV evangelist, a corrupt police commissioner, and a heavy metal cult group - each trying to take control of the City of Angels.

All that's missing from the TV show in the movie is the program's final image: a beefy, sweating hand pounding out in metal the logo of Webb's production company.

"I think the problem was with Webb's wife, Opal, who is still alive," Aykroyd said. "MCA Universal owns the rights to the show, so that was no problem because they produced the movie.

"But I think Mrs. Webb owns the right to the Mark VII logo with the hand stamp. I think she wouldn't let us have that. Maybe she was asking a 100 grand.

"We should have got it, though. I would have called it a 'Mank VII Production' (after writer-director Mankiewicz). I could have hit my hand with the hammer."

In conversation Aykroyd shifts so quickly from funny to serious that sometimes an interviewer isn't sure if his comments are preposterously funny or intensely wise.

He maintains, seriously he said, that the "Dragnet" movie is more than a comedy; it's also a tribute to the police.

Born in Canada, Aykroyd loves America the beautiful and America the bad. For him, he said, all police - not just Jack Webb's police - "uphold the right and the good under God's name. I would hope people today who look to the media and to religion and to politicians for moral order would realize that the ultimate right and wrong are decided daily by a good cop.

"Sure there are bad cops and bad laws, but I'm talking about good cops and good, basic, Ten Commandment laws in God's name. Men of the cloth sermonize about those laws, but who upholds the law? The cop, God's real crusader."

Aykroyd then stepped down from his soapbox, saying, "Now Jack Webb would love it if he heard me say that. And that's really why I didn't want the story to be about Friday trying to recover stolen money or solve a brutal murder. The stakes had to be bigger than that. He had to do nothing less than save the city, even against police bureaucrats who don't believe him."

Much better than the crime story is the gentle way "Dragnet" humanizes Friday in domestic scenes. His first date is with his grandmother; later he begins dating a woman who is constantly referred to as "the virgin Connie Swail."

"I like those scenes, too," Aykroyd said. "Actually he did have a date on one of the old TV shows, but then halfway through dinner, duty called."

Of course, the major human relationship Joe Friday had in the TV show and has in the movie is with his partner.

In the TV show his partner was played most memorably by portly Ben Alexander (as Frank Smith), who was replaced by trim Harry Morgan (as Bill Gannon). Morgan shows up in the film in a substantial role as Friday's boss.

"Harry told us Jack Webb did have a sense of humor about himself." Aykroyd said. "He did appear on Johnny Carson's show. He might spin a few times in his grave if he saw the film, but overall I don't see how it hurts his image. I think he'd get the tribute, too.

"As a teen-ager I used to watch him bust hippies on the show and we all laughed at that and the formalized way he talked.

"But he was compelling. And the relationship with Ben Alexander, the more I watched the old shows the more I realized they loved each other; they had such mutual respect."

In the film the relationship begins with disdain, as Friday is saddled with a hip, '80s cop named Pep Streebek (Hanks), who initially views Friday as a Cro-Magnon policeman.

"Tom is great playing the young pup," Aykroyd said. "I've been very fortunate in my career to play opposite the very best comedy talents of my generation."

He's right on that score. Think about it: Aykroyd has costarred with John Belushi ("The Blues Brothers"), Eddie Murphy ("Trading Places"), and Bill Murray ("Ghostbusters"). Chevy Chase ("Spies Like Us") and Hanks can be funny, too.

All of those films were monster hits; Aykroyd has shared deeply in their riches, and yet one wonders if he is comfortable being considered - at least until "Dragnet" - a second banana.

"Oh, sure," Aykroyd said. "As a co-producer of those pictures, to have stars like those guys working for and in partnership with me, that's lucky for me. When you hire a Bill Murray or an Eddie Murphy, you don't give them the small part.

"I'm an originator. 'The Blues Brothers,' 'Ghostbusters,' and 'Spies' all started with me. I wrote the original draft in each case.

"I think people realize my contribution. I just never believe in pointing it out. A lot of these projects wouldn't be there without me, and I think the people who need to know that know it.

"I'm proud of my performance in 'Trading Places.' That's an 'A' film. But I've never been concerned with laughs, just the totality of the entertainment.

"Yet nobody works alone. I do have a draw, I think. I help. I'm good in a support way. But basically I'm an originator, a creator."

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