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Tales of Murder, Songs of Peace


Joe Wambaugh, Cop Writer: “Before I came along,” says author Joseph Wambaugh, “it was all about how cops act on the job. But I flipped it and wrote about how the job acts on the cop.”

As a prolific writer of fiction, nonfiction, and screenplays, Joe Wambaugh is a transformative figure, who redefined the popular genre of police novels into literature,” Jerry Roberts said while introducing him to a Santa Barbara Writers Conference audience Sunday night, June 22, at Fess Parker’s Doubletree.

On the Beat

I write 1,000 words a day, when I’m writing,” said Wambaugh, at 71 still police-academy trim. “If you do, you can have a novel three months later, a first draft. That’s the trick.”

Then, freely confessing that he had no idea how to teach writing, Wambaugh, with 19 books to his name (Hollywood Crows is the latest), launched into cop stories about run-ins with the famous. One 1960’s night, he was staked out on vice duty, checking a suspicious house. Officers stopped a departing taxi containing “a stand-up comedian who always bad-mouthed cops” -Lenny Bruce - and a tall blond guy with an English accent.

 Joe Wambaugh
Click to enlarge photo

Joe Wambaugh

Who does that belong to?” Wambaugh’s partner demanded, pointing to a bag of marijuana found in the taxi. In those days, possession of weed was far more serious than it is today. His partner was dying to bust Bruce. But the blond man made a plea to the sergeant in charge. He was starring in a movie that would make film history and this was his big chance. If he was arrested with Bruce, it would ruin everything for him. “Hook ‘em up,” said the unsympathetic partner, cuffing the pair.

But the English guy went on to make such a moving plea for compassion that the hardened sergeant relented. “Unhook them.” No arrests were made of Bruce and the Brit, Peter O’Toole, whose film Lawrence of Arabia was about to come out and make him a star. As for Lenny Bruce, “As far as I know,” he never bad-mouthed police again in public, Wambaugh recalled.

According to Wambaugh, Noel Coward once said of O’Toole, “That lad’s so pretty they should have called it ‘Florence of Arabia.’”

The ex-cop told of spotting two guys sitting in a car about 1 a.m. in the Wilshire District, claiming to be aspiring actors. Wambaugh, a film buff, recognized one as a former child actor who played “Little Beaver” in the Red Ryder Saturday afternoon series. It was Robert Blake. Wambaugh released them both.

Flash forward many years. Wambaugh, still a cop but now a famous author also, was to appear on the Johnny Carson show. So was Blake, then the star of the hit series Baretta, who never brought up his childhood roles because they didn’t fit his image-in fact the Little Beaver role embarrassed Blake. Carson wanted Wambaugh to tell the story and reveal Blake’s hidden, child-actor past.

Click to enlarge photo

You want me to go on national TV and humiliate this man?” Wambaugh asked, refusing. One of the show’s producers said that in that case, Wambaugh couldn’t come on the show and sell his book. “So I said, ‘OK.’” So, on live TV, Wambaugh told the story about how he didn’t arrest Blake, who was sitting in the next chair, his Tony Baretta character’s pet cockatoo on his shoulder. “Why?” Carson asked. It was a set up. Replied Wambaugh: “I didn’t want to go down in history as the cop who arrested Little Beaver.” During the commercial break, “Blake stormed off the set” without so much as a handshake for Carson. “I told Carson, we really messed him up.” Replied the talk show host: “Screw him. This is show business.”

Invited once to Truman Capote‘s Palm Springs home for lunch, Wambaugh spent an hour explaining his idea for a nonfiction book about the kidnapping of two L.A. police officers and the murder of one of them. “I wish I could tell that story,” said Capote, already famous for his 1966 nonfiction account of the murders of a Kansas farm family, In Cold Blood. Inspired, Wambaugh quit as a detective sergeant and began interviewing 63 people and going through 40,000 pages of testimony.

The resulting The Onion Field, published in 1973, is often compared with In Cold Blood. In his introduction, Roberts quoted Wambaugh: “I feel I was put on earth to write this story and I’ve never had that feeling before or since. I felt it was my sole reason for living.”

Suite for Crosby, Stills & Nash: In the Santa Barbara Bowl’s soft, balmy evening, the beloved trio of Crosby, Stills & Nash (no, Neil Young did not show up to add a fourth) played on our nostalgic heartstrings. Graham Nash went barefoot, Santa Ynez Valley homeboy David Crosby was relaxed, with hands in his pockets at times, lovingly dedicating music to his family, and Stephen Stills rocked out on genius guitar. They joined voices in their cherished 60’s and 70’s songs and a sprinkling of newer ones. A mellow moon on the rise, the crowd at the sold-out amphitheater got up and sang along happily, 60’s survivors with their kids, remembering every word and thinking of all that’s happened, especially when CSN sang anti-war songs. A young woman’s peace sign pendant, gleaming silver, said it all: Back by popular demand. Interesting to recall that the group failed an audition with the Beatles’ Apple Records in 1969.

Free Tacos: High price of gas draining your wallet? On Thursday, June 26, Jack in the Box fast food joints will give away two free tacos to guests presenting a valid gas receipt. (Limit of one order of tacos per guest. No dupe copies.)

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Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.

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