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Herb Ellis, a veteran character actor who helped Jack Webb create the legendary cop show Dragnet, has died. He was 97.
Ellis died Dec. 26 in San Gabriel, Calif., his daughter, Karen, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Ellis played bistro owner Wilbur on the NBC-ABC crime drama Peter Gunn, created by Blake Edwards, and was the film director in the opening scene that sees Peter Sellers create havoc on his set in Edwards’ 1960 comedy, The Party (1968). He also appeared in the filmmaker’s What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966).
Other notable big-screen appearances came in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie (1966), and Ellis also had regular roles in the 1960s on the series Hennesey, starring Jackie Cooper, and Peter Loves Mary.
Webb starred as LAPD Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet, which began on the radio in June 1949. He got the idea for the police procedural after working as a lab technician on the documentary-style film noir classic He Walked by Night (1948), starring Richard Basehart.
He and Ellis then wrote a pilot script called Joe Friday, Room 5. That show was not made, but it led to another series. “Dragnet was created at my dining room table,” Ellis said in Gerald Nachman’s 1998 book Raised on Radio.
“There were a lot of good actors that Jack made very unhappy. He didn’t want actors, he wanted readers,” Ellis continued. “Actors want to act, and they couldn’t stand the show’s monotone acting style. They didn’t get it.”
When Dragnet made its way to NBC television in 1951, Ellis portrayed Officer Frank Smith opposite Webb on a handful of episodes. He also appeared in the 1954 big-screen version and worked for Webb in the 1955 feature Pete Kelly’s Blues, on NBC’s The D.A.’s Man and on Dragnet again when it was revived in the ’60s.
Herbert Siegel was born in Cleveland on Jan. 17, 1921. He was an announcer and actor on many radio programs and worked with Webb at a San Francisco radio station. They collaborated on the shows Pat Novak for Hire and Jeff Regan, Investigator, and Ellis eventually became one of the actor-producer’s regulars.
(The two also shared a love of jazz, and Webb married actress Julie London in 1947 at Ellis’ home, his daughter noted.)
Ellis later showed up on episodes of other series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, The Fugitive, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, My Favorite Martian, Perry Mason and Sanford and Son. He also had a thriving career as a voiceover artist.
Survivors include his four grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife of 73 years, Sylvia, and son, Steven.
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