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This happened a while back but just came to my attention: Clark Howat, one of the more recognizable members of the 1960s “Dragnet” ensemble, died last year at age 91 (no date of birth was given in the obituary I found online, but has that covered).

Howat appeared 21 times in Jack Webb’s revival of “Dragnet” in the late 1960s. While most members of the ensemble appeared in a range of roles — villain one week, crime victim the next, etc. — Howat was reliably an authority figure, often playing Sgt. Friday and Officer Gannon’s direct supervisor. Tall, handsome and soft-spoken, Howat deftly communicated a calm, commanding presence on-screen. In 1971’s “Billy Jack,” Howat played Sheriff Cole, the only sympathetic establishment figure in the film. That’s the sort of presence he had.

In real life, Howat was a well-spoken, graceful man, something I learned in 2002 after I wrote him a fan letter (why, yes, I am a geek). His response:

Dear Craig:

Thank you very much for your thoughtful letter and complimentary comments about “Dragnet” and about me. I appreciate your taking the time to write and expressing your feelings about the show and the pleasure it has given you.

The production of “Dragnet” seems a long, long time ago, and my memories of that show, and some movies in which I appeared about the same time, are a little hazy (not because the brain has decayed — yet — but because a great deal has occupied my life in the interim).

My most distinct memory of “Dragnet” is of the fast production schedule the producer and star, Jack Webb, employed. No other TV series producer at Universal, or elsewhere, could match the speed with which this show was produced. Of course, time was money. And “Dragnet” was produced on the proverbial shoestring.

For example, actors were encouraged (if not ordered) to use the teleprompter … and so we read our lines. We were told: “Don’t try to act; just read.” The process precluded many retakes because of flubbed lines. Reading the lines, instead of acting, was contrary to everything we had been trained to do. But I guess it worked.

Thanks again for your kind words. I think I have some photos packed away somewhere in my garage, and I’ll rummage through the stuff and see if I can find one. With luck, I’ll be able to send you one.

I wish I was your age again. The youngish things in life are the best. Chasing girls, especially! Have fun.

Regards, Clark Howat

Several years later, when I incorporated my affinity for “Dragnet” into my debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, I appropriated my brief interaction with Mr. Howat and gave it to my lead character, the “Dragnet”-loving Edward Stanton:

When I started to learn my way around the Internet, I found that the actors who appeared on Dragnet were, in many cases, not difficult to track down. Most of them were not big stars, and some even have listed phone numbers and addresses. That’s not the case with the main actors in this episode, Anthony Eisley, Virginia Gregg and Luana Patten; they are all dead. A lot of other people who were in the ensemble are dead, too, but some are alive. I exchanged some mail with an actor named Clark Howat, who appeared in 21 episodes of Dragnet. He was very nice. He told me how the star and creator of the show, Jack Webb, who plays Sergeant Joe Friday, didn’t want his actors to act because the series had such a small budget and could not afford more than one take on each scene. Instead, Jack Webb had them read their lines off teleprompters. Mr. Howat said it was hard to get used to, as actors’ training is to be more natural. But, he said, Jack Webb’s methods worked. I wrote back to Mr. Howat five or six times, and even invited him to have a cup of coffee with me if he ever came through Billings, but he never wrote back. It’s just as well. I don’t like coffee, and I think it would be difficult to sit at a table with a stranger and talk, even if he was in Dragnet 21 times.

Among word pushers, some really need to lighten up and find something better to do with their time. A good example: Those who find grammatical flaws in songs.

I pay the bills as a copy editor, so I daresay I come into contact with this species more regularly than average folk do. I can’t tell you how many colleagues I’ve had over the years who delight in pointing out stuff like this:

The redundancy in Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die”: “This ever-changing world in which we live in …” (Now, there are some who claim that Macca really says “in which we’re livin’,” and to those I say this: I’ve heard the song roughly 3,000 times. And I think you’re wrong.)

The failure to deploy the subjunctive in Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound”: “Homeward bound … I wish I was …”

More redundancy, courtesy of John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Small Town”: “No, I cannot forget from where it is that I come from …”

You get the picture. While I certainly have my peeves — oh, lordy, do I have my peeves — this was never really one of them. I’ve never had the expectation that lyrics should be paragons of precise grammar. To me, they serve two functions: to communicate ideas and images and to fit, sonically, with the accompanying music. I’m willing to forgive much under the auspices of sonic Jell-o.

It was strange, then, to find myself distracted a few hours ago by The Doors’ “Touch Me.” I was driving home and heard, not for the first time, “… till the stars fall from the sky for you and I.”

It’s easy enough to see why Jim Morrison chose the words he did. They rhyme. Still, I tried to come up with something just as good that was also grammatical. The closest I got was “the land falls in the sea for you and me,” which isn’t close at all. What Jim Morrison lacked in objective pronouns he more than made up for in lyricism. He gets a pass.

So does Ken Stringfellow, whose loveliest song (in my opinion), “Death of a City,” includes this bit:

“He walks right through you and I now, silently making his usual rounds …” Stringfellow didn’t need the pronoun for his rhyme (now/rounds), and I suspect that he’s smart enough to know the proper grammar. My guess is that he simply liked this choice better in the full context of ideas and music. I’m inclined to agree. Send me to hell if you must.

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