Jack Webb: The Next Big Thing

“Just then, a Secret Service agent recognizes that it’s Jack, and the bodies are parted like the Red Sea”

Tony Fantozzi somehow brought Jack Webb into my life. 

He assuredly didn't need my guidance. As one of TV's first hyphenates with his own iconic production company, Mark VII, he created a lot of the television I grew up watching in Philadelphia, and he could have put together TV movies with his eyes closed. 

OK, to hide behind yet another cliche, he could invent an hour show with his hands tied behind his back. 

But, for whatever reason, he liked me, and we spent many hours at Perino's (he introduced me to this spot before it would disappear forever, just as Scandia, La Serre, Brown Derby, Le Dome, Cock and Bull, Chasen's, Rangoon Racquet Club and even Old World would bite the dust.) 

Speaking of the Rangoon Racquet Club, although he wasn't a regular, it was Jack who introduced me to the RRC, as well. (His secret hide-out was a Korea-town dive called HMS Bounty, which is still there.) 

While not that far a walk from the Morris office to Little Santa Monica, no other Morris agent used the elegant little "club" as much as I did throughout the '80's and '90's. And because of that, owner Manny Zwaaf treated me as a visiting celebrity — which was bizarre, since his healthy and creative food attracted many of the rich and famous. 

On my first visit ,the place was packed, but something was very different about an ordinary lunch — there were too many standing bodies and no one moving.

I was about to suggest to Jack that we walk over to La Scala when Zwaaf, the elegant, smiling bon vivant, approached Jack and said, "It won’t be long for you and your friend — the President’s here and the Secret Service are driving everyone nuts."

Just then, a Secret Service agent recognizes Webb, and the bodies are parted like the Red Sea.  We see Reagan’s smiling face and great head of hair, and he lights up when he sees Jack, stands up and moves to shake Jack’s hand. We are seated directly opposite Charles Bronson, who calls out to Jack. 

Webb is well liked. “I was in a position to hire a lot of actors when they were starting,” he says.  Bronson hugs Jack. Jack introduces me as “my good friend and agent.”  Bronson touches my shoulder and returns to his booth. 

But that was the lost and lamented RRC, and this day we were back at Perino's. It was close to the Christmas holiday in 1982, and I would meet him at 12:45.

We would be at the art deco bistro for the next two hours. He had been a "bread and butter" actor (co-starred in "Sunset Blvd") before writing, directing and producing. We discussed everything about TV, the networks, the studios, the women of the agency, the gossip and the possibilities. 

First possibility: He shared with me an incredible idea for either a hourlong series or a four-hour miniseries that we agreed to immediately pitch to the networks. 

Bill Self, who was running CBS, adored Jack, so I was confidant a major deal was in the wings. 

While he had developed and produced his entire career through Universal, Jack wanted to jump start his company as an indie in television and features. 

He asked me to formerly oversee the new Mark VII with Fantozzi, as he envisioned reignited production activity. He wanted to give Lorimar, Quinn Martin, MTM and Spelling a run for their money.

One of the other possibilities Jack asked me about were commercials. 

Was there a major endorsement he could get like Karl Malden's for American Express? 

I was confident it would be a slam dunk. America loved and trusted Jack Webb. 

And he looked, well, like Jack Webb. Great. When I staggered back to the office, I went to Rick Hersh, the head of West Coast commercials, and asked.  He agreed: "There's a major deal for Jack Webb." 

The next morning, I placed a call to ask Jack to come in a sit down with me, Fantozzi and Hersh. 

Several hours later, his daughter called to advise that he had awoke very early feeling sick and believing he needed to eat. He went into his kitchen and fell down. Paramedics couldn't revive him. He was 62.

Great talent, great man, great loss. Too soon.

 

A former senior vice president at William Morris for two decades, Axelman founded the movie for television packaging division, responsible for putting together the elements for more than 150 TV movies, features and series while representing winners of the Tony, Emmy, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize.

Since 2004, he has taught Entertainment Business and Law at UCLA.

He currently has written two half-hour pilots and co-created three reality shows with Diane Raymond.

He is at work on an agency-inspired tell-all novel.