Cover of FBI Detective Stories (Newseum collection)
FBI Detective Stories (Newseum collection)

The FBI in Popular Culture

Longtime director J. Edgar Hoover recognized that he could capture the public’s imagination by promoting his bureau as America’s crime-busters. In 1935, Hollywood launched an FBI legend with the movie "G-Men," starring James Cagney. The movie was a hit with the public — but not with Hoover — who wasn’t fond of the wise-cracking image Cagney projected.

Hoover couldn’t control Hollywood, so he worked with reporters and FBI publicists to produce radio shows, books and even comic strips that always portrayed the bureau as heroic. Advertisers caught the FBI frenzy; kids of the 1930s and ’40s could get kits to fingerprint their pals through Junior G-Man clubs.

The 1959 film "The FBI Story" — based on an FBI-authorized book by reporter Don Whitehead — and television’s "The FBI," starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr., captured the image dearest to Hoover’s heart: the G-man as a family man and hero. For years after the TV show ended in 1974, people sent mail to "Efrem Zimbalist Jr., FBI Director."

Scandals in the latter part of the 20th century dimmed the FBI’s luster, but the agency bounced back in pop culture. With such popular TV shows as "Numb3rs," "Bones, "The X-Files" and "The Sopranos," and the "Grand Theft Auto" video games, the FBI remains a pop culture icon.

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