Joe Wambaugh: The Writer Who Redefined LAPD Wambaugh, who spent years on the force, wrote the best-selling book The Onion Field in three months during a leave of absence from the department. Over the decades, his realistic and multidimensional portrayals of L.A. cops have helped tranform their public image.
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Joe Wambaugh: The Writer Who Redefined LAPD

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Joe Wambaugh: The Writer Who Redefined LAPD

Joe Wambaugh: The Writer Who Redefined LAPD

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Before he was a best-selling author, Joseph Wambaugh was a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. That experience helped Wambaugh write about cops as real people. More than three decades later, he's still writing, and in the last of our Crime in the City series, NPR's Mandalit del Barco explores Wambaugh's Los Angeles.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Joe Wambaugh is treated like a star when he visits the police station in the gritty Hollywood neighborhood he's immortalized. He's even invited to address the baby-faced officers during roll call.

DEL BARCO: These young people are not going to know who this old fart is.

INSKEEP: Oh, they know who you are, sir.

DEL BARCO: Sergeant Donovan Lyons assured him of his cult status within the LAPD. Hanging on the walls of the station are framed movie posters of Wambaugh's famous films.

DEL BARCO: Anybody see the movies? Oh yeah, thanks a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: Thanks a lot.

DEL BARCO: Wambaugh jokes a bit, then offers some advice from his book, "Hollywood Station."

DEL BARCO: There's a line in there that the sergeant, who I call the Oracle in the book, says that's true. It's that doing good police work is the most fun you will ever have in your lives. I'll leave you with that. Good to meet you, thanks.

DEL BARCO: Wambaugh, who's now 71, is the son of a police officer. He joined the LAPD in the early 1960s, after a stint in the Marines. For 14 years, Wambaugh worked his way up from patrolman to detective sergeant at L.A.'s Hollenbeck station. When he wasn't on duty, he wrote two successful novels about the LAPD, "The New Centurions" and "The Blue Knight," which were made into movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

U: (As character) Freeze, man. Cool it. Cool it. Out of my way.

DEL BARCO: Wambaugh was also still a cop when he wrote and produced "The Onion Field," a best-selling book and movie. It's the true-life story of two LAPD officers who were kidnapped and taken to an onion field outside Bakersfield, California, by two suspected robbers. As the film depicts, one of the cops, Ian Campbell, was murdered.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ONION FIELD")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

DEL BARCO: Decades later, Wambaugh stands outside the Hollywood station, which features sidewalk stars like those on Hollywood Boulevard for movie legends, only these memorialize Ian Campbell and other cops killed while on duty.

DEL BARCO: I was put on Earth to write "The Onion Field." That's how I felt about it. 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, went back to my detective table at Hollenbeck station and stayed a cop for another year.

DEL BARCO: Wambaugh's celebrity grew, and he was sometimes hounded for autographs from the people he put in handcuffs. He eventually quit his day job to write and to create, among other works, the hit 1970s TV series, "Police Story."

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "POLICE STORY")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: With his realistic portrayals of cops, Wambaugh transformed the formerly clean-cut Joe Friday image of the LAPD.

DEL BARCO: 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. The cops in those stories were stick figures, right? There were no third dimension to them. We didn't know who they were and what they felt.

DEL BARCO: Instead, the cops in Joseph Wambaugh's books do have feelings and flaws, which he says almost got him fired by the police chief at the time. But the current chief, William Bratton, warmly embraces him, and Wambaugh's books are now must-reads at the Police Academy.

DEL BARCO: I like to think of myself as the younger, sexier homicide detective he referred to in the story.

DEL BARCO: Hollywood Detective Sergeant 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.

DEL BARCO: Joe's thing is to take you out to dinner, and cocktails flow, and the stories start to flow also, and he's found, I think, that women are a lot more conversant than men. The guys, it usually takes a few more cocktails.

DEL BARCO: 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.

DEL BARCO: All of the bad guys or bad women in my stories are ordinary little criminals.

DEL BARCO: 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, they get into scuffles. In one scene, Batman fights with Spiderman, and Marilyn Monroe has to call 911.

DEL BARCO: Yeah, no, I mean, it happens all the time now.

DEL BARCO: Hollywood Detective Brett Goodkin helped Wambaugh with his research.

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

DEL BARCO: Other scenes in Wambaugh's new books take place at L.A.'s legendary Farmers Market, where show-biz old-timers hang out every morning. The group includes actor/producer Paul Mazursky, artist Charles Bragg and assorted comedians.

U: Here comes my good friend, Edward G. Robinson.

DEL BARCO: When Wambaugh visits, they rib him about how he portrayed them in his books.

U: He's the geezer. I'm a young stud. He's the geezer.

U: No, I'm the codger. Paul Mazursky's the geezer, I'm the codger.

DEL BARCO: Aren't they something?

DEL BARCO: You had to put them in the book.

DEL BARCO: Oh yeah, oh, if I hadn't used them, they'd never speak to me again. The only thing they're angry about, they all wanted to be named in the book - with their agent's name, phone number, available dates.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: 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.

DEL BARCO: Mikey.

DEL BARCO: Inside, they 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' stories will be in Wambaugh's next book, "Hollywood Moon."

DEL BARCO: He's like our Godfather. 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, you know, we have kids that run away, we have kids that use drugs. We're just like you.

DEL BARCO: I'm the padrino.

DEL BARCO: He's our Godfather.

DEL BARCO: 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.

DEL BARCO: Of course, because I'm an LAPD cop, now and forever.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: You can read an excerpt from Wambaugh's latest book, "Hollywood Crows," at NPR.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

And I'm Deborah Amos.

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