It´d be easy to pass off Joseph Wambaugh novels as garden-variety, ready-made cop dramas - all it would take is to not read one. But crack into a copy of The New Centurions or The Onion Field and the delusion that you’ve walked this beat before is quickly shattered. As an author, Wambaugh is more Elmore Leonard than Stephen King though reissues of his early works feature glowing introductions from not just King but from such crime luminaries as Michael Connelly and James Ellroy.
Wambaugh’s vision is an unsentimental day-to-day journey of an L.A. career cop. He came at a time when Jack Webb was spoon-feeding the world with images of untarnished badges worn by the likes of Joe Friday and the cops on Adam-12. When his book The New Centurions came exploding out on the scene it marked a change where there would be no turning back to the clean-cut image of our city defenders. Wambaugh showed cops at their best, their foulest and their most real. It would be an end to innocence and the beginning of a new type of cop drama.
But Wambaugh himself seems at odds with the very characters he writes about. While many of his characters grow disillusioned and fall prey to alcohol, drugs, divorce and suicide, he remains alarmingly stable. Perhaps leaving the force – a move he suggested was more evolutionary than choice – has something to do with the sanity he maintains.
He’s been writing for more than 40 years. His family still tells him that he’s a cop.
Q: After a full day’s work I barely find the time to read a bestseller let alone write one. How is it that someone can meet the demands made of a full-time police officer and still find the time to become a successful author?
A: Because I’m a writer. It was inside me. It just had to come out. I was a cop and I was raising a couple of small children at the time but I was at a time in my life where I thought I just must let it out. I had stories to tell and I had to tell them. I don’t know how to explain it any clearer then that. And I’m a disciplined person, so that helped. I don’t know about you? Are you a disciplined person?
Q: No, I am not. But certainly it’s not all about discipline. Being a good writer must have something to do with it. Were you a writer before you were a police officer?
A: I guess so, but I didn’t know it.
Q: Then how did the writer in you make himself known?
A: I just had this tremendous urge to try it. And when I tried it, it turned out pretty well. Then I realized that I must have been a writer all along.
Q: These two worlds, writer and cop, don’t seem to be immediately cohesive. And yet you were able to be a great writer who was also a great cop.
A: I was never a great cop.
Q: No? What stopped you from being great?
A: I wasn’t born to be a great police officer. I was born to be a pretty fair writer.
Q: Then what makes for a great police officer?
A: A fine police officer can be had if we recruit people with common sense, a sense of humour and a bit of compassion. Those are the three qualities we should look for. And you can’t be taught those. Those you have to be born with. All police recruiters should look for those three characteristics. They’re very important. A cop needs a sense of humour – believe me.
Q: Judging from you’re work, those are three qualities you have an endless supply of.
A: I think I have a pretty good sense of humour, and I have some common sense. Not at all times. I wish I had more of it. I think I had some compassion – probably I could have used more of that as well. The sense of humour has served me well though. I brought a lot of gallows humour, dark humour, into my stories about very serious subjects and probably helped to make the stories so successful.
Q: Your characters tend to enter their careers full of compassion only to be drained of it as time goes on. This is particularly evident in The New Centurians.
A: Yeah, well, the premature cynicism that overtakes young police officers tends to diminish compassion. The cynicism happens as a result of seeing not only the worst of people, of which they expected to see, but ordinary people at their worst. They develop that minority group mentality where unless they’re with “blue” people like themselves they’re distrustful and think that no one else understands them. The minority group paranoia really takes over young officers after a couple of years and then they have to work through it.
Today there is a lot of psychotherapy and counselling being offered to police officers. There wasn’t any of that back in my day. Perhaps that’s why the officers in The New Centurians suffered so much as a result of what happens to young police officers. And then in my true crime story, The Onion Field it was a disaster what happened to the officer in that case.
Q: I gather the minority group mentality isn’t race specific but rather inclusive of anyone who isn’t dressed in blue, that is, anyone who is not a police officer. Still, in your stories the locker room banter includes a free range of racial slurs among the officers towards other officers.
A: I think it helps a lot for other colours (within the force) to be obliterated and everyone turn blue. But that doesn’t work as well these days because these are very politically correct times. The interracial banter that once flew around the locker room has been curtailed. Now, at least 20 per cent or more of police officers are women and sexist jokes can get people into trouble. [Laughs.] It’s not so much fun anymore, actually.
Q: So that type of banter was viewed as good-natured and rather than being seen as ostracizing it was in fact unifying.
A: Right. It wipes out gender and it wipes out race. We’re all blue.
Q: In Centurions again, a character defends the need for three or four able-bodied policemen in taking down one perpetrator, regardless of the perpetrator’s age, strength or ability. This certainly plays against public opinion.
A: Civilians have been conditioned by movies where people have been knocked out with one kick, one blow or one tricky move and in real life none of that works. I’ve been in on all kinds of physical training and out in the field where nothing works the way it does in the martial-arts movies. It ends up being rough-and-tumble, jumping on someone and trying the muscle their hands behind their back to get their handcuffs on. It’s very, very tough.
It’s similar to the shooting situation where in the films a gun can be shot out of someone’s hand [and] someone can be wounded in the shoulder or in the leg and disabled. In real life – and this has been proven by lots of tests – the best police marksmen miss many of the rounds they fire at a fleeing car. If they can’t hit a car they certainly can’t hit a moving person very easily. The real world versus the movie world causes a world of problems for coppers.
Q: Then where is your responsibility as a writer – to create a plausible and interesting story for the public or to debunk the myths of the cop drama?
A: Hopefully I do the two things simultaneously. I strive to tell an entertaining story while obliterating those Hollywood myths.
Q: Hmm, therapy for police officers. You come from what I perceive as an era of tough guys, tough ideas and tough spirits – who needs a therapist to come in and turn the force into one large group hug?
A: It’s difficult to persuade cops to submit, if that’s the right word, to people who are trying to help them in the therapy mode even today, not just for people my age. There’s a certain macho swagger connected with being a law enforcer. The shrinks who work at the police department have lonely jobs. They have to force people to come in. People who have been involved in shootings and very violent situations have to be ordered in. Too seldom do coppers call and make an appointment on their own – whether it’s for marriage counselling or whether it’s for other psychological counselling as a result of the terrible violence they’ve been involved in. There’s a stigma attached even to this day.
Q: Marriage and the pressures of being a cop don’t always mesh so well. You’ve maintained a long-standing good relationship through the years. If you had stayed a cop might the story have been different?
A: I don’t think so. I was only six years from my retirement when I became a full-time author. I wrote three of my bestsellers while I was a Los Angeles police officer and I stayed on the job. I was on the force for 14 years. I had six more for my 20. I would have made it [laughs].
Q: But a lot of police marriages do fall by the wayside, do they not?
A: Oh yeah, certainly, you can imagine with a job like that with the hours and with the minority group paranoia – no one understands me but blue people; and my wife, or husband as the case may be, is not blue therefore they cannot understand me.
Q: It’s an interesting distinction but is the life of a writer any less isolating? Mario Puzo once famously stated, “The hardest thing about being a writer is staring out the window and convincing your partner you’re working.”
A: [Laughs.] I guess my wife is a patient person and understands that what I do has to be done alone. She always made space for me and took care of the kids and did all that. I probably should have spent more time with the kids.
Q: But that also was more of an era thing. Society seems to be only recently affording men the time to be with their young children.
A: Well, that’s true too. Nowadays men get maternity leave to be with their wives. In my day that would have been unheard of.
Q: I’m certain your children are benefiting from your attention now.
A: [Laughs.] Thank you.
Q: Most of your works had success in a second life as a film or television programs – perhaps with one exception, The Choirboys, which I understand you’re not too fond of talking about.
A: I don’t like talking about the film however I am proud of the book. Director Robert Aldrich was just misguided in his interpretation of it. I worked with him some because I had done an original script. The last minute I learned through a police officer that was on the set as a technical advisor that my script had been scrapped; however, my name was still on the project as screenwriter. That’s how I got wind of it. And then a lawsuit ensued. When I saw the finished project it was horrible. I took my name off it as screenwriter.
Q: Wise choice. I remember it as a curious film leaning towards appalling, although it does have wonderful actors.
A: There were good actors in it.
Q: You have a real respect for the beat cop, don’t you?
A: Oh yeah, sure. In the Hollywood trilogy – Hollywood Station [and] Hollywood Crows have been published and Hollywood Moon will be out in December – they’re primarily dealing with the uniform officers, the beat cops, because they’re fun. They have more fun doing police work than the detectives do. I didn’t have a lot of fun as a detective even though I was one for about six years because the thing had already occurred. With the guys and gals out on patrol they can be there when it’s happening so they’re really in the thick of it. They get to see the show. There’s more opportunity to weave a good story around those people than it is around the detectives who just deal with everything after the fact in the sterile light of day. They’re pushing paper around most of the time.
Q: So my education on detective work, which comes from watching Law & Order, is inaccurate? A detective doesn’t just flash his badge, cross the crime scene tape and orders a coffee from the beat cop?
A: Orders a coffee?
A: You mean the detectives would order a coffee from the patrol officers?
Q: Vincent D’Onofrio does it all the time.
A: No. In real life the officer would tell him to get it himself.¨
Q: [Laughs.] Good. Glad to hear that. So, I’m still struggling over this image of you as a working police officer and yet popping up on The Johnny Carson Show. You were a celebrity cop. Were felons lining up to be arrested by you?
A: I knew my career as a cop was over when one of them said to me, “Never mind my rights, what’s George C. Scott really like?”
Q: [Laughs.] And what was the feeling around the station? Were officers suspicious or even jealous?
A: You might have expected some jealousy, but I didn’t experience jealousy. I experienced deference and that was harder to deal with than jealousy. Jealousy I could have dealt with but deference drove me away – people opening doors for me and treating me differently was too much to bear and that made me sad.
Q: I understand. Part of being a police officer is belonging – of being blue – and you were suddenly thrust into an exalted position.
A: Well put. I didn’t belong anymore. I didn’t belong anymore after the first book but I still hung in there after three books. Finally I realized that I was turning into a freak.
Q: What can you tell us about Hollywood Moon, which is due to come out in December?
A: It’s the third in the Hollywood trilogy. In these three books I’m dealing with some of the same characters in sequel form. I’ve never done that before. I’ve never had continuing characters in my books prior to these three Hollywood books. And I don’t know if I’m going to take it any further than that – maybe this is it. But it continues a saga of these patrol officers at Hollywood station and the craziness of working in such a weird place as Hollywood, which everyone knows is not quite like any place else on earth. I think all the bizarre people on the planet gravitate towards Hollywood, looking for God knows what, and the police end up dealing with them.
Q: That statement suggests what might be the difference between LAPD and NYPD.
A: Oh yeah, sure. I always say that when I get up before an audience and I can’t think of what to say – because I’m not a speech maker, I’m a storyteller, and I don’t know what to do when I get put into situations where I have to speak to people. But when I do I end up telling stories because that’s all I know how to do. I always preface my talk by saying NYPD would probably get up here and tell you a cops-and-robbers story, but since I was with LAPD I’m going to tell you a cops-and-show-business story, and everyone loves that.
Q: So give us one cops-and-show-business story.
A: I’ll try to keep it short. One night I was in plain clothes on patrol. We stumbled across two men, one an aspiring actor looking suspicious in a parking lot. No one except a movie buff like myself would have recognized him.
He was a bit older than me. I said, “What are you guys doing out here?” He said, “We’re just a couple of struggling actors that come out of an actor studio and we started talking and the time got away. We weren’t doing anything wrong.” And I said, “Okay. I know who you are, Mr. Blake.”
Years later he’s the highest paid star in series television in the show Baretta and he’s a guest on Johnny Carson. And on that very night Johnny has me on to promote one of my books. When the producer asked me if I had ever met Robert Blake. I recounted the incident of running into him years before when I was a young cop and he was an unknown actor who had been a child star.
It turned into a very funny episode where poor Mr. Blake got terribly embarrassed because he had been denying his past that he had ever been a child star. I saw him as a kid when I use to go to the Saturday afternoon serials they use to have. He played an Indian kid named Little Beaver who ran around with a cowboy hero named Red Rider. He didn’t know any of this was coming so we had some fun with him on the stage. The audience got a huge kick out of it but he stormed off the set during a commercial. I said to Johnny, “Wasn’t that mean what we did to that guy?” And Johnny said, “Screw him. This is show biz.”
Q: [Laughs.] And then many years later, the police end up back at Robert Blake’s door.
A: That’s why I tell that story – people know who Blake is because of the murder.
Q: That’s show biz. I have to ask, during 14 years on the force in Hollywood, did you ever think you would be a show-biz team player?
A: I never became a team player in Hollywood in terms of television and movies. I was always an outsider, I was always fiercely independent, I was always a pain in the ass to everybody I was working with. I just wasn’t a team player. I probably should have been more of one, because there are some talented people in the business. But I was always suspicious of people in the business because in the early part of my career in movies and TV, I had some problems like with Choirboys, the film which resulted in a lawsuit. I think that might have made me guarded for the rest of the way so I never really became one of them. I was an outsider. I remained a cop, frankly, when I was making TV. And movies. I was still a cop.
Q: Once a cop, always a cop?
A: Yep. My family says I’m still a cop.
Available December 2, 2009
Thom Ernst is a Toronto-based film writer and critic and the producer/interviewer of TVO´s long-running movie program, Saturday Night at the Movies.