That credit is a familiar one to me. In the late-90’s, TV Land was rerunning the, as I consider it, “Jack Webb Trilogy”: Dragnet, Adam-12, and Emergency! In short order, I was addicted to all three. The man behind many of the best episodes of Adam-12 and Emergency! (and, indeed, a LOT of great shows) was Dennis Donnelly. So, when I had the opportunity to speak with him, it was actually kind of a surreal experience for me. I mean, I was actually conversing with the guy behind not only some of my fondest TV memories, but also shows that have held up incredibly well and that I still love very much today. On any given day, I can turn on MeTV, and there’s a good chance I can watch an episode of Adam-12 or Emergency! that was directed by him. How cool is that?
Because the interview wasn’t exactly scheduled, I didn’t want to take up too much of Mr. Donnelly’s time, although he was never anything but completely friendly and forthcoming with his stories. I have no problem saying that I was a bit nervous on the outset, but Mr. Donnelly quickly put me at ease. The interview was less of a question-and-answer session and more of an actual conversation (shortly into that roughly 30 minute conversation, I was too enthralled to be nervous), and that’s the way this article will really read.
We spoke mostly of his work on those Jack Webb shows, but Dennis Donnelly has been behind a LOT of TV shows over the years. He has a seriously, seriously impressive list of credits; one look at his IMDb listing will make your eyes pop at the sheer number of great shows he was involved with. My first experience with Mr. Donnelly’s work outside of those Jack Webb shows was the 1978 film The Toolbox Murders, except that was in the days before DVD, when VHS copies of films such as that went for big bucks on Ebay. Being a fairly broke kid (as I opposed to being the fairly broke adult I am nowadays), I was never able to snag my own copy, but to me it’s still fitting that that’s the subject our interview started proper on:
Me: Now, you did, correct me if I’m wrong, you did The Toolbox Murders?
Dennis Donnelly: Right.
Me: That’s got kind of a following nowadays.
DD: Yeah it does.
Me: I know there was a remake a couple years ago.
DD: Tobe Hooper made another one, this time they just called it Toolbox Murders, not The Toolbox Murders, and it was a totally different story.
Me: I Haven’t seen the original one, I know that was sort of the start of slasher films and those more extreme sort of things around that time.
Me: I understand that had a big following on video when that first came out.
DD: Yeah. Yeah, I remember when it came out video. I think I even got it on Beta.
Me: Oh yeah! [Laughing]
DD: That’s how long ago that was!
Me: That was one years ago I always tried to get and I could just never get ahold of it.
DD: I had it on ¾” tape and I don’t have anything that plays ¾” tape, nobody I knew had a ¾” tape machine. That’s what they had in studios. The professionals, you know, all had ¾” cassette videos so they could watch actors they were going to interview and things like that.
[At that point the possibility of another video format that I could potentially learn more about led me to ask some fairly amateurish questions on ¾” tapes.]
DD: It was exactly the same as Beta except it was ¾” tape. It was a much bigger cassette and I’m sure much more expensive. It wasn’t anything you could rent anywhere.
Me: That was all sort of in the hands of the studios?
Me: Unless you had really, really deep pockets you probably couldn’t get that for the house?
DD: No, and if you did, you wouldn’t have a player for it!
[For as much as I know about old VHS and Beta VCRs, I really didn’t know much at all about the ¾” format at all, so it was invaluable to me to learn this information. It was shortly thereafter that our conversation turned to his television work.]
Me: Now, I know you directed episodes of Emergency!
Me: And you did other stuff with Jack Webb?
DD: I did Adam-12, which was where I started directing. I did more than anybody of that, I did 28 of them!
Me: No kidding! That’s very cool! It’s funny because I grew up when they were playing all this stuff on TV Land. That’s the kind of stuff that I still love watching today. It’s on MeTV now, they do all three in a row, Dragnet, Adam-12 and Emergency!
DD: Oh really!
[I’ve noticed of late that despite no affiliation with the channel whatsoever besides watching a lot of it, I tend to promote MeTV quite a bit.]
Me: Now what was it like working in Los Angeles in the 1960’s? There was so much stuff going on then.
DD: Well, I was born there, so it was like “because it’s Los Angeles” didn’t mean a thing. I left for two years, I was in Hawaii doing Hawaii Five-O as an assistant, and I would talk about directing to Jack [Lord] and he kinda laughed it off thinking I was kidding, so I left, came back, did Adam-12, got promoted and did more of them than anybody, and then I did The Toolbox Murders. And then I went to Hawaii on vacation and I stopped by the set. Jack said “Come into the dressing room, let’s talk!” So, he said “What have you been doing?” and I said “Well, I just directed my first movie!” He said “Really!” I said “Yeah, but you know Jack, I don’t really wanna give up TV, I’d really like to do this show.” And he says “Well, I can’t really make those decisions, but I’ll certainly put in a good word for you.” And then a couple of weeks later I was there!
Me: Now, Jack Webb, he was always so meticulous and a stickler for details on his shows. Was he sort of like that behind the scenes? Or was he real easygoing or…?
DD: He was EXACTLY like that behind the scenes!
DD: I mean, if he liked you, you could do no wrong. But, he was a tough guy. When he was directing, which he directed all of the Dragnets while he was alive, nobody made a sound on his set. On every other set, if the director was a nice guy like I was on Emergency!, [the crew] they’d just start getting louder and louder. Until one day I just yelled at them! I said “That is TOTALLY disrespectful! If you wanna talk, go outside and talk!” and everybody was going “Oh wow! What’s wrong with Dennis?!” but they were quiet!
Me: [Laughing] Wow!
DD: Sometimes you just gotta do that. Jack didn’t have to. He could just look at people and they’d shut up!
Me: I know watching it on TV he looks like a guy someone probably wouldn’t wanna mess with!
DD: Did you ever see the movie The D.I.? You should try to get that. That was Jack Webb, playing himself as a drill instructor. He was so perfect. That’s exactly what he was like.
Me: Well, I’m definitely going to look into that. Of his movies, I have the 1954 Dragnet and Pete Kelly’s Blues.
DD: Pete Kelly’s Blues I think was his favorite.
Me: Because he was into Jazz and that sort of thing?
DD: Oh, absolutely! I mean, he had the best stereo, and he had a lot of friends that were, you know. I mean, Bobby Troup, he used to go to The China Trader where Bobby Troup played piano, and he’d go in there almost every night after work. So, he and Bobby were close friends, and Julie, I think that’s maybe how Bobby and Julie met. Julie London, because she was at one time married to Jack. So, interesting stories!
Me: Yeah! I mean, I love hearing this stuff! Like I said, I grew up watching this stuff on TV Land, and it holds up. A lot of the stuff today, I just, I don’t really have [an interest in]. There’s a couple shows I like, but there’s really not a whole lot that holds my interest.
DD: I totally agree with you.
Me: I Just think a lot of its got no soul.
DD: You’re exactly right! I mean, like today, nobody would hire me as a director. Of course, not that I’d want to, but it’s just so different today, it’s really hard to follow a lot of stuff.
Me: Yeah. I guess that sort of goes back, I mean, I understand you were born in L.A. It’s all sort of, I guess, second-nature, commonplace to you, but it just seems like, to me, being in Los Angeles in the 60’s and everything that was going on during that entire decade and everything you saw come out of Los Angeles, it seems like it was a great time to be a part of.
DD: Well, then it started changing, and fortunately, that’s about the time I could get out of it. And, as soon as I was through working in Los Angeles, I could hardly wait to move out.
Me: When was that about?
DD: I’d say it was 8 years ago.
Me: What were the last things you were working on? Were you still working in [TV]?
DD: No, I was a superintendent of construction for a remodeling company. That follows, doesn’t it?
Me: [Laughing] It seems like now, I guess to me, I mean, I’ve done a little bit of acting and things like that but I’ve never been to Los Angeles and worked there. From what I’ve sort of heard and read about, it seems like it’s very, uh, I guess you’d say “corporate”, not as ‘loose‘, or maybe…?
DD: You know what, today the writers run everything.
DD: Yeah, they all become directors, they’re all the producers, and you know, that became a real pain.
Me: Yeah, I can imagine.
DD: As soon as you take the writer and name them a producer, he gets pretty lazy. Like he knows everything.
Me: I actually read Dwayne Hickman’s autobiography not too long ago and he sort of said the same thing about producers. There’ll be a bunch of producers, but only one or two have any real power. [The rest] are just sort of there in-name-only.
DD: When you’re doing a show, and you look at the call-sheet, and there’s more producers than drivers. When that happened, it changed everything. More producers than drivers! I mean, you have 13 producers on a show! What do they DO? They’re all lazy and they want somebody else to do their work.
Me: Were you with Emergency! until the very end then?
DD: Almost. When they finally stopped doing the series, they did several TV movies, I had nothing to do with that. But I was there until pretty much the end.
Me: I understand there’s always going to be stress and pressures doing a TV series like that, but was everyone pretty cool?
DD: Yeah, everybody was. Otherwise we never could have made it. Every other show at Universal was a 7-day shoot for an hour show, ours was 6, and then they cut us down to 9 hours a day. And, to do a show that’s mostly action, it’s almost impossible. But, we did it!
Me: I tell you what, it still holds up. Of those three Jack Webb productions, I think Emergency! really is my favorite because it really has held up so well.
DD: And it’s just got so much action in it. It just lends itself to more action just like Adam-12 would. Every once in awhile you’d have a show where hostages were taken or something like that, and that would make it pretty exciting, but I’d say a fire was a lot more interesting.
Me: Plus, you sort of had both sides of it. You’d see someone be injured and rescued, and then they’d take them to the hospital, and you’d see the follow-up there.
Me: I know when I was watching these shows for the first time, they really gave me a whole new appreciation for our firefighters and doctors.
Me: Paramedics, absolutely.
DD: That’s what started the paramedic program. That show started it. Jack Webb worked with the fire department and all the people at city hall and everything, and they were thinking about starting something like that. And, he encouraged it, and he got it on television before they were actually in the field! We had a technical advisor on the set who was a paramedic all the time, and we had technical advisors from the fire department whenever we did a fire rescue, they were there.
Me: That’s gotta be great knowing you were a part of all that.
DD: Yeah! And you know, they’ve got a fan club and everything.
Me: Well, I know after watching it, I was like “Man, I’d like to be a paramedic!”, but I uh, don’t really think I’ve got it in me to do that.
DD: Well, you talk to a paramedic almost anywhere, and they’ll tell you they were influenced to do that by Emergency! I’ve talked to guys here, and they’ve said “Yeah! Sure, that’s what made me do this!”
[Over the course of nearly 30 minutes, my conversation with Mr. Donnelly covered a lot of ground, but perhaps the most important thing touched on was the fact that Emergency! was a huge inspiration to an entire generation (and beyond) of people that later became paramedics, firefighters, doctors, nurses. That being as it is, it’s not a stretch to say that, in a way, the show was responsible for saving lives.]
I cannot overstate how amazing it was to speak with a guy that was involved in not only some of the greatest TV series of all-time, but also worked in the industry during some of its greatest years. And what’s more, I’ve spoken with celebrities before that had an air of superiority, as if they were doing you a favor by speaking with you, even if they were actually speaking down to you. I can honestly say that was definitely NOT the case here. Mr. Donnelly was completely personable, informative and generous. Truly a class-act all the way, and I can’t thank him enough for taking the time to talk with me.
I’ve never done an interview on this blog before and I don’t know if it’ll become a regular feature. I’d certainly like it to be, but if this ends up being my only one, I couldn’t be any happier with the outcome. I couldn’t have asked for a better interview, and I once again extend my gratitude to Dennis Donnelly for his time.