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Joe Wambaugh: The Writer Who Redefined LAPD

Long-time police officer Joe Wambaugh wrote the best-selling book <em>The Onion Field</em> in three months during a leave of absence from. Here he visits his old stomping grounds, the Hollywood police department.
Mandalit Del Barco/NPR
Long-time police officer Joe Wambaugh wrote the best-selling book The Onion Field in three months during a leave of absence from. Here he visits his old stomping grounds, the Hollywood police department.
Some of retired sergeant Mike Diaz's (right) stories will be in Wambaugh's next book, <em>Hollywood Moon.</em>
Mandalit Del Barco/NPR /
Some of retired sergeant Mike Diaz's (right) stories will be in Wambaugh's next book, Hollywood Moon.
Joe Wambaugh (front center) visits Hollywood veterans, including producer Paul Mazursky (left) at Hollywood's legendary Farmer's Market. They meet every morning to kibitz. Wambaugh has incorporated these people into his books.
Mandalit Del Barco/NPR /
Joe Wambaugh (front center) visits Hollywood veterans, including producer Paul Mazursky (left) at Hollywood's legendary Farmer's Market. They meet every morning to kibitz. Wambaugh has incorporated these people into his books.

Morning Edition resumes its Crime in the City series.

Joe Wambaugh is treated like a star when he visits the Hollywood police station he helped immortalize. Framed posters of his movies hang on the walls, and when he shows up, he's invited to address the baby-faced officers during roll call.

On a recent morning, he takes the opportunity to offer some advice from his book Hollywood Station.

"There's a line in there that the sergeant, who I call the Oracle in the book, says that's true," Wambaugh tells them. "It's that doing good police work is the most fun you will ever have in your lives."

Wambaugh, now 71, is the son of a police officer. He joined the LAPD in the early '60s, after a stint in the Marines. For 14 years, he worked his way up from patrolman to detective sergeant at Los Angeles' Hollenbeck station. When he wasn't on duty, he wrote two successful fiction novels about the LAPD, The New Centurions and The Blue Knight, both of which were made into movies.

Onion Destiny

Wambaugh also wrote the best-selling book The Onion Field, which he later adapted for a 1979 movie. It's the true-life story of two LAPD officers who were kidnapped by two suspected robbers and taken to an onion field outside Bakersfield, Calif. That night, one of the cops, Ian Campbell, was murdered.

Decades later, Wambaugh stands outside the Hollywood police station, which features sidewalk stars like the ones on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. Only rather than movie stars, these stars memorialize cops killed on duty. Wambaugh stops near a star with Campbell's name on it.

"I was put on Earth to write The Onion Field. That's how I felt about it," he says. "It was such an emotional experience for me. I took a six-month leave of absence from the police department to write that book. I read 40,000 pages of court transcripts; I interviewed about 63 people and wrote the book in three months. I went back to my detective table at Hollenbeck station, and stayed a cop for another year."

Throughout that year, Wambaugh's celebrity grew. Sometimes he was even hounded for autographs by the people he put in handcuffs.

The pull of writing eventually trumped police work, and he quit his day job to write and to create, among other works, the hit '70s TV series, Police Story.

Bye, Bye Joe Friday

With his realistic portrayals of cops, Wambaugh transformed the clean-cut "Joe Friday" image of the LAPD.

"Before I came along, Dragnet and Adam 12 were good public relations vehicles for the LAPD. But they didn't attempt ever to tell how the job acts on the cop," he notes. "The cops in those stories were stick figures. There was no third dimension. No inner life to them. No back story to them. We didn't know who they were and what they felt."

The cops in Wambaugh's books, and the TV shows and movies they gave rise to, have feelings and flaws. Early on in his writing career, this almost got him fired by the LAPD police chief.

Attitudes have changed, however. The current chief of police, William Bratton, warmly embraces him, and his books have become must-reads at the Police Academy.

Two Cops And A Bottle Of Rum

Hollywood Detective Sgt. Vicky Bynum says it's difficult to get police officers to open up. But she's among the scores of cops Wambaugh has interviewed over the years to collect their stories, which he then fictionalizes.

"Joe's thing is to take you out to dinner, and cocktails flow and the stories start to flow also," Bynum says from her detective desk at the Hollywood station. "He's found women more conversant than men. With the guys, it usually takes a few more cocktails."

Wambaugh's Los Angeles is populated not only with complex cops, but also wannabe actors and drug-addicted tweakers, wealthy immigrants, gawking tourists and colorful street thugs. He says his characters and plots are unlike most police thrillers, with their flamboyant master criminals or extravagant serial killers.

"All of the bad guys or bad women in my stories are ordinary little criminals," he says.

Take for instance, characters from Wambaugh's latest books about Hollywood. Costumed celebrity look-alikes greet tourists in front of the famed Mann's Chinese Theater and sometimes get into scuffles. In one scene, Batman fights with Spiderman, and Marilyn Monroe has to call 911. Real-life Detective Brett Goodkin, who helped Wambaugh with his research, says this sort of thing happens all the time in Hollywood.

"You do get those calls: suspects dressed as Bart Simpson. And you show up and, sure enough, there's a really angry, high Bart Simpson that wants to fight," says Goodkin. "The majority of street performers have criminal histories, and they get in their little squabbles among themselves."

Other scenes in Wambaugh's newest books take place at L.A.'s legendary Farmers Market, where show-biz veterans hang out every morning. The group includes actor/producer Paul Mazursky, artist Charles Bragg and assorted comedians, who kibitz and cavort every morning.

When Wambaugh visits, they rib him about how he portrayed them as "geezers" and "codgers" in his books. He says he had to include them.

"As a matter of fact, if I hadn't used them, they'd never speak to me again," he jokes. "The only thing they're angry [about is], they all wanted to be named in the book with their agent's name, phone number, available dates."

For lunch, Wambaugh heads to East L.A. for some Mexican food. At the popular restaurant El Tepayac, he meets up with another old pal, Mike Diaz. They both sit with their backs to the wall in case of any trouble — an old cop habit. Then Wambaugh reminisces with Diaz, a recently retired Hollywood station sergeant. Some of Diaz's stories will be in Wambaugh's next book, Hollywood Moon.

"He is the Godfather," Diaz says of Wambaugh. "He's the one that brought us to the screen and let people know what police work was really like. We have problems, we have heartbreaks, we have divorces, we have kids that run away, we have kids that use drugs. We're just like you."

Wambaugh is now working with Sony Pictures to turn his Hollywood trilogy into a TV series. He says he plans to continue writing about the cops in Los Angeles, "because I'm an LAPD cop, now and forever."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
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