I’ve mentioned before in this column that I grew up loving the late-1960’s run of the popular police procedural Dragnet. Jack Webb, depicting LAPD Sergeant Joe Friday, narrated the series as the most honest and dedicated police officer ever envisioned.
In most episodes, Sgt. Friday would be working in a case in a random division – homicide, robbery, bunco/frauds, etc. – and the viewer would watch as he gradually solved the case. In other episodes, however, the series dealt with less sexy matters such as police administration and internal affairs investigations. All the while, Sgt. Friday was as impassive as he was unimpeachable.
What you may not know is that Dragnet, which started as a radio program in 1949, was so popular that it spawned an series set in New Orleans.
In 1955, the year after the 50’s run of Dragnet ended, N.O.P.D. premiered. It starred Stacy Harris, a regular actor on Dragnet, as Detective Victor Beaujac. His partner was Detective John Conroy, played by an NOPD detective, Louis Sirgo. Billboard Magazine described the series as adopting a “documentary adventure approach to crime, based upon files of the [NOPD].”
“If this reminds anybody of Dragnet,” Billboard opined, “it should.” Producer-writer Frank Phares specifically cited Dragnet as being his inspiration for the series. Like Dragnet, the series strived for authenticity, with Billboard noting that N.O.P.D. was “the first major effort to be shot in New Orleans.” It was shot entirely on location; well-known local figures played themselves.
Alas, the series was short lived. It only ran for 39 episodes, despite leading to two feature-length films, “Four for the Morgue” and “New Orleans After Dark.” I have a framed copy of one of the lobby cards from the latter hanging in my kitchen.
Stacy Harris went on to start in various films before returning to Dragnet when it was brought back to television in 1967. He died in March of 1973.
Louis Sirgo, on the other hand, returned to his day job with the NOPD, but retired in 1964 and became a clerk with Traffic Court. In 1970, he was appointed deputy superintendant of police by then Chief Clarence Giarrusso. Sirgo was outspoken, decrying poverty, “vindictive” justice, and “the greatest sin of American society — the status of the American Negro.”
Sirgo was murdered in the line of duty two years later during the race-fueled murder spree of Mark Essex. It began on New Year’s Eve of 1972, when Essex shot and killed NOPD Cadet Alfred Harrell Jr. and NOPD Sgt. Edwin Hosli, Sr. (his eldest son, Edwin Hosli, Jr., became an NOPD officer and has served as District Commander for the 2nd and 8th Districts).
A week later, Essex was subsequently found in a stolen car and chased into the Howard Johnson’s on Loyola Boulevard (presently the clarinet-emblazoned Holiday Inn). There, Essex continued his rampage, killing police and civilians indiscriminately as he stormed his way to the roof.
Sirgo was shot in a stairwell as he led an effort to rescue trapped officers. He was carried to safety and died shortly thereafter at Charity Hospital. The plaza in front of police headquarters is named in his memory.
Despite Sirgo’s heroism, N.O.P.D. is still a forgotten relic. It has never, to my knowledge, been released on any home format. It’s a shame, because especially now, I would truly like to see it. As the NOPD hopefully works its way towards meaningful reform, I would like to see the steadfast, irreproachable Sirgo working cases by the book.
It would be escapism to some degree, but also aspirational. The first television series filmed on location in New Orleans presented the police as an organized, regimented force dedicated to serving the public good, a New Orleans Dragnet.
That’s something we all wish for the department to be.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.