Pioneering television crime dramas established new rules for viewers, amping up the violence and the flash-quick dialogue; and delivering reluctant, but likeable, heroes who solve complex crimes in an hour of delicious television. Today, the genre has never been more popular, but it owes much of its winning formula to industry innovations developed in the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, the invention of the teleprompter helped actors deliver dialogue in quick, clipped sentences. New ways of shooting scenes, including the close-up and quick edits, ushered in new and exciting storytelling elements. Unlike Westerns, which tended to shoot panoramic scenes using wide shots that took in an entire landscape, crime dramas began to produce scenes that drew viewers close into an actor’s face, thus increasing the dramatic arc of the story. Several groundbreaking crime dramas also challenged stereotypes of the day, casting women and minorities in key roles.
Jack Webb’s popular radio drama, which dispassionately played out real-life crimes taken from the records of the Los Angeles Police Department, made the leap to television in 1951. This unusual show did away with fisticuffs and dramatic acting in favor of a documentary-like style that relied on authenticity for its street credibility. Unlike other crime dramas, “Dragnet” didn’t focus so much on the crime, but instead showed the after-effects of crime on victims and family members. Webb was an innovator, using teleprompters to help his actors deliver deadpan dialogue, and using close camera angles to break the barrier between viewer and actor. The show ratings were initially dismal, but NBC kept “Dragnet” on the air, and viewers eventually warmed to Webb’s approach.
One of the first popular series in the “buddy genre,” the popular “I Spy” espionage crime drama relied heavily on the on-screen and real-life friendship between actors Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. This groundbreaking series debuted in 1965, just as America’s battle for civil rights was at a boiling point. “I Spy” made a splash by casting the first African-American actor, Cosby, in a lead role. Culp and Cosby decided the best way to handle the controversial casting, however, was to say nothing. They would portray a world where race was a non-issue. “[Cosby] came in and he said, ‘Listen, our television series is a statement by being a non-statement.’ I said, ‘Done,’ and we shook hands on it,” recalls Culp. “We never talked about it again.” Unlike many taut crime dramas before it, “I Spy” ventured into new territory by shooting in exotic locations and using famous landmarks as backgrounds for the duo’s crime-fighting adventures. Despite a rough start, in which comedian-turned-actor Cosby was nearly fired by the series producer, Sheldon Leonard, the fledgling actor turned in gifted performances, and he earned three Emmy Awards for his work on the series.
Actress Angie Dickinson starred in this crime drama series that successfully cast the first woman in a lead role. Dickinson portrayed tough-minded Pepper Anderson, a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department, who often went undercover to nab the criminals. “Police Woman” was an immediate hit when it debuted in 1974, and its success paved the way for other female-lead crime dramas that followed, such as “Charlie’s Angels” and “Cagney & Lacey.” “I was a heroine. I loved being a heroine,” says Dickinson. “And I loved that [Pepper Anderson] was allowed to be sexy and still a hero. It’s not an easy combination.”