Although he turned in his badge and left the Los Angeles Police Department in March 1974, Joe Wambaugh is still Detective Sergeant No. 178 at heart and cannot shake the memory, even in the bosom of his family. “My wife calls me Sarge until noon, when I begin to quiet down,” he says.
Policemen have been the heroes and antiheroes of all of Wambaugh’s best-selling books, television shows and films, and he would still be in the lintless blue uniform if success and celebrity hadn’t spoiled it all. “People I’d been working with for years began to chuckle when I said something that wasn’t that funny, and they stopped slapping me on the back. I detected a subtle deference in their words, and I’d catch eyes on me. It made me feel isolated. When I began getting the gee-whiz treatment from crooks, too, I realized my police work was becoming an exercise in futility.”
Whatever his regret at leaving the LAPD, the consolation is impressive. Everything Wambaugh has written since The New Centurions in 1971 has been acclaimed by the critics and gobbled up by the public. That kind of achievement translates into a big rock candy mountain of money, making the ex-cop a rich and famous man. He has a Mediterranean-style mansion with tennis court in San Marino, a chic suburb of Los Angeles, a weekend pad in Palm Springs, vacations in Europe and Mexico, a sleek beige Mercedes as his personal prowl car and an income “too obscene to talk about.”
There is no indication it will ever end. Police Story, Wambaugh’s realistic cops-and-robbers TV series, has been nominated twice for an Emmy (only to be beaten out both times by the British Upstairs, Downstairs) and is now in its third season. A new TV series, The Blue Knight, based on his big 1972 novel about an aging policeman on the verge of retirement, premieres this week on CBS-TV (starring George Kennedy as the hero, Bumper). The latest Wambaugh novel, The Choirboys, was an immediate best-seller and an alternate selection of the Literary Guild. It will be made into a racy feature film next spring, with script by Joe Wambaugh, who is as skilled at scenarios as at novels. Wambaugh will also co-produce the movie, along with Lorimar Productions (The Waltons, The Blue Knight). The Choirboys, a steamy account of “choir practice,” police jargon for off-duty revelry, will be crammed with sex, gore and machismo and aimed at an “R” rating and theater audiences rather than at television. There are a couple of other TV shows in the works, The Kiddie Cops, about the LAPD’s Juvenile Division, and another on the Bunco Squad. At 38, Joe Wambaugh is set and celebrated.
He certainly entertained no expectations of literary fame when he and a partner were cruising the midnight streets of Watts 10 years ago. (“When you’re in that car together,” Wambaugh says, “there’s an unspoken vow, written somewhere in stone, that you will put your ass on the line for each other for eight solid hours—even if you hate the guy.”) Back then his hope was to avoid promotion and the inevitable desk job that went with it. The son of an Irish-American working-class family, Joe was born in East Pittsburgh, Pa. at the end of the Depression, two days after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second inauguration. “Everything was black,” he recalls. “The skies were like graphite and the town was covered with six inches of soot.” And everybody was poor. His father was the police chief who later left the force to work in the steel mills, where he lost a couple of fingers and saw a friend burned alive in an open hearth. (Joe points out that the life of steelworkers is far more dangerous than that of cops, “most of whom don’t get hurt—except on TV.”) When Joe was 14, the Wambaughs moved to California and settled in Fontana, near the San Bernardino County steel plants. The California kids, he remembers, were “larger, healthier and tanner” than his East Pittsburgh friends—”and a bit intimidating.” At Chaffey High School he met Dee Allsup, whose family were also steelworkers, and he was not intimidated. “We were just babies,” she recalls. Four years later they were married.
Their early days together were as hardscrabble as their childhoods had been. Joe served a brief hitch in the Marines, worked at a steel mill job and studied American literature and English at Los Angeles State College. “We were really struggling,” Dee remembers. “I used to sew my own clothes and shop in discount stores, though our house was a smidgen nicer than we could afford.” Joe had been planning to teach but shortly before he won his bachelor’s degree he decided that classroom work was not for him, and he joined the police force instead. “It is a solid, middle-class job which pays better than teaching and offers terrific retirement benefits. It just struck me as interesting work. You’re out, you’re with people, there’s some excitement. I didn’t see how it could be dull.”
Patrolling a beat (at $489 a month), Wambaugh insists, is not a dangerous job. “People want to hear all about the shootouts, but the real danger is what it does to your emotions. You have experiences that take their toll on you, and one day you wake up and realize you’re not the same person. You’re cynical. You don’t have the faith in people you used to have.
“People are always berating you. The more diligent you are, the more people will bad-mouth you. The way they see it, you’re restricting the freedom of a drunk if you don’t let him drive down the street. They’d love you better if you didn’t do the job.” Wambaugh’s eyes glint as hard and shiny as coins as he speaks: “If you want love, be a fireman or a social worker.”
The disillusion and the shredding of a policeman’s moral fabric run like a thread through most of Joe Wambaugh’s books. His first two novels, The New Centurions and The Blue Knight, were drawn from his own flesh-and-blood experiences on the force. “I identify with everybody I write about,” he explains. “All the characters are composites of people I have known. I don’t really invent things—I just recall them and rearrange them to make sense out of chaos.”
His most ambitious work, The Onion Field, was based on the midnight murder of a Los Angeles policeman in 1963 and the subsequent emotional deterioration of the partner who escaped. When the surviving officer, Karl Hettinger, was forced to resign from the force for shoplifting, Sgt. Wambaugh suspected that he must be suffering from mammoth guilt for allowing his assailants to disarm him and kill his partner. To research and write the book, Joe took a six-month leave of absence, interviewing 60 people who had been involved in the case. He also took on the burden of possibly inflicting further emotional damage to Hettinger. “It was a terrible responsibility. I was dealing with a fragile man, and if anything had happened, then I would have had the guilt complex.” While he was writing the book, Wambaugh recalls, “I was possessed, working night and day. I couldn’t get through a single night without dreaming about it, and it was months before I shook it off.” When the book appeared and the principal characters applauded it, Wambaugh had the feeling that he had been exorcised. “That was better than the best New York Times review.”
When he was first jotting down notes that would later become books, no one, least of all Wambaugh, imagined he would become a best-selling author. A friend remembers that one big magazine sent Wambaugh so many rejection slips it finally asked him not to submit any more stories. Police buddy Lt. Jack Herron predicted that “one day Joe is going to be a millionaire”—not in literature but by peddling Hong Kong suits from the tailgate of a station wagon in a police parking lot, a Wambaugh moonlight enterprise. “Joe had a dramatic flair,” another policeman says, “but in the two years we worked together, I never knew he was writing. Then one day he asked me to take his picture for a book jacket. I thought he was kidding.” Dee Wambaugh was just as surprised. “He would lie there reading a book or just thinking while I was out pushing a lawn mower uphill. That really burned me up. I didn’t know the great American novel was being born.”
“My only realistic goal,” says Joe, “was to publish one short story.” But when an editor at Atlantic Monthly suggested that he expand a story into a novel, Joe began working after hours and on days off and produced a book which fetched a $4,000 advance from Little, Brown. “I was flying!” Joe says. “I thought it was a miracle just to have a book published at all.” The money enabled Dee, who had been teaching art classes in the garage of their modest split-level home, to hire a gardener to mow the lawn and to open an art supply store in a shopping center. The shop went broke within six months, and the Wambaughs spent the rest of the advance on a Mexican vacation. When they returned, though, they learned that the Book-of-the-Month Club had picked up The New Centurions for $76,000. “It was like winning the Irish sweepstakes,” Dee recalls, and Joe echoes, “Pickwick [Hollywood’s biggest book store] looked as if it was being pinched, there were so many policemen going in to buy the book.” The Wambaughs have been living grandly ever since, with a housekeeper, a secretary and gardeners to take care of the lawn. (“Before,” says Dee, “we were poor and happy. Now we’re free and happy.”)
As a near-millionaire in casual khakis and open-collared shirts, Joe Wambaugh is very much a family man, centering his leisure time around Dee and their three children, Mark, 13, David, 11, and Jeannette, 7. He has joined a country club in Palm Springs, where he and his sons play golf on weekends. When he moved to San Marino, he refused to join several nearby clubs because of their discriminatory practices. “I couldn’t contribute to that sort of thing,” says Joe. “Being a cop for so many years and seeing people of all races being born, dying, living and suffering, I didn’t see what difference it could make on the 14th fairway if somebody was Jewish or black.”
The life of leisure, however, was starting to pall on Wambaugh. He was often restless, bored, yearning to be back on the streets, aware that he had “nothing to take notes on anymore.” He toyed with the idea of moving someplace “warm and wet” to please his beach-happy children. “I’ve heard that sailing can consume all your time and energy,” he said wistfully.
Now with his responsibilities as co-producer of The Choirboys, he has a job again. He was disappointed with the screen treatment of The New Centurions, which he BRACKET “George C”] Scott,” and Columbia, after buying The Onion Field for $315,000, has allowed it to lie dormant, much to the author’s dismay. “Now I’ll have a chance to put my money where my mouth is,” he says. “But think of all the choir practice I’m going to miss!”