Joseph Wambaugh, a former LAPD detective sergeant, was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. His many books include The Hollywood Station trilogy.
From his Q & A with Dennis Marsili:
Q: When you were a police officer was there any particular case that sticks out in your mind that you could put a finger on that was a really important case for you?--Marshal Zeringue
JW: I don’t know about that so much but since I worked in LA most people want to know about show biz stuff. So when I worked at Wilshire station my first plain clothes assignment there, when I only had about 2 ½ years on the job we had what was called ‘Felony car’ we used to ride around in plain clothes in a plain car and look for felonies. It was kind of a patrol job but we were in plain clothes.
We spotted a couple of guys in a car in a parking lot at night. So we went and pulled them out and my partner took out the driver on his side and I took out the passenger. We got ID and patted them down and asked them ‘what are you doin’ out here?’ and my guy said ‘well we are at an actors studio up there and we came down and we got to talking and time got away from us. We are not doing anything wrong not doing dope or anything we are just sitting here.’
At this time he was not known to anyone, but I recognized him because I’m an old movie buff. Back in East Pittsburgh I used to go every Saturday afternoon to the theater, and see the double feature. I knew who all the child stars were, like ‘the little rascals’ and ‘our gang’ and I recognized this dude. He couldn’t believe it because he had left that all behind and wanted to be a real actor. At this time he was about 26 years old. I looked at his driver’s license and he said, ‘I m an actor really.’ Then I said I know who you are Mr. Blake.
Then many years later when I was a cop/writer I went on Johnny Carson. Blake was the highest paid actor in series television at the time because he had the show ‘Baretta’ and he was making a ton of money and was a big star.
The producer prepped me before the show and said, ‘we got a couple of guys on tonight you will be guests with have you ever met Robert Blake? And I said yeah and I described the story to him. They went out and prepped the audience and told them about Joe Wambaugh when he was working a plain clothes detail and pulled Robert Blake out of a car when Blake was a struggling nobody.
By that time when Blake was on the Johnny Carson show he had erased from his mind that he had been a child star on ‘Little rascals and our gang’ and he played in many feature films as a child actor. When I used to go to the Saturday matinee there used to be a serial called ‘Red Rider’. I used to have a ‘Red Rider’ BB gun when I was a kid. Red rider’s sidekick was a little Indian papoose. The papoose’s name was ‘little beaver’ and little beaver was Robert Blake. So I knew all this because I am a movie buff. So this is what I explained to the producer and the producer told the audience about this and all about ‘little beaver’.
Here is Blake who told people publicly that he was a starving actor on the streets and had to steal milk from the stoop next door in order for his family to survive. He had wiped out of his mind that he was a child star. So the audience is in on it all and Johnny is in on it all, Blake doesn’t know anything and doesn’t know what is going to happen.
So when I get called out, Blake was already done with his thing, he’s got that big cockatoo that was from the show. He had the bird on his shoulder and he is sitting there real cool. So I come out and Carson says here is the author/cop Joe Wambaugh. I sit down and Johnny says, “Joe have you ever met Robert Blake?” and I say “Oh yeah,” and the audience starts to giggle and Johnny has a little smirk and Blake looks puzzled. Then Johnny says, “Oh yeah? Well where?”
So I described it and I can see the light dawning on Blake. We get to the punch line; now remember it was all setup, so Johnny says “Did you arrest Mr. Blake for anything Joe; that night?”
And I said, “No way, I didn’t want to go down in motion picture history as the guy that busted ‘little beaver.’”
Now remember Blake has tried to hide all this from everybody. He was so pissed off he turned white and everybody is laughing. We go to commercial he jumps up the damn cockatoo goes flying he leaps up storms off the set and leaves. So I said to Johnny, “Was that kind of mean what we just did to that guy?”
Johnny said,...[read on]