Sunday, September 17, 2023

The 60th Anniversary of The Fugitive

It was sixty years ago that the running began. On September 17 1963 the classic show The Fugitive debuted on ABC. The show starred David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, who had been wrongfully convicted of his wife's murder. While he was being shipped to death row, the train carrying him derailed and he managed to escape. Dr. Kimble then went on the run, all the while searching for the one-armed man who had really killed his wife. Pursuing him was Stafford Police Lt. Phillip Gerard, an officer dedicated to the enforcement of the law.

The Fugitive was created by Roy Huggins, who had earlier created such classic shows as Cheyenne, Maverick, and 77 Sunset Strip while at Warner Bros. In 1960 he left Warner Bros. to become vice president in charge of television production at 20th Century Fox. It was while he was still at Warner Bros. that he began thinking about how to adapt a Western such as Cheyenne and Maverick to modern times. Both of those show dealt with heroes (Cheyenne Bodie and various members of the Maverick family) who wandered the Old West. According to Roy Huggins in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, "I wanted to have a hero who behaved like a Western hero--who was totally free, had no permanent residence or commitments, no responsibilities." It was then that he came up with the idea of a hero who is wrongfully convicted of a crime and must then go on the run, wandering the United States much like Cheyenne and the Mavericks.

Much of the inspiration for The Fugitive came from Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables, in which the novel's hero Jean Valjean must go on the run. Like Jean Valjean before him, Dr. David Kimble also assumed numerous aliases and help people he met along the way. Producer Quinn Martin would bring The Fugitive even closer to Les Misérables. Roy Huggins had merely wanted to create a show in which, in his words from the aforementioned interview with The Los Angeles Times, the hero "...was in trouble the moment he got up from bed every day." It was Quinn Martin who turned The Fugitive into a show on which a good part of it was centred on a chase, as Lt. Gerard pursued Dr. Kimble. Just as Lt. Gerard pursued Richard Kimble on The Fugitive, so too did police inspector Javert pursue Jean Valjean in Les Misérables.

Over the years it it has often been thought that The Fugitive was based in part on the real-life case of Dr. Sam Sheppard. Dr. Sheppard had been convicted of bludgeoning his wife to death in 1954. Dr. Sheppard not only denied the crime, but claimed that he had chased a "bushy haired man" from the house. Two witnesses also said that had seen a bushy haired man near the Sheppards' house that day. Initially found guilty of the crime, Dr. Sheppard was found not guilty by a jury in a retrial in 1966. A 1997 DNA test as part of a lawsuit brought by his son in an effort to absolve his father of the murder. The DNA test proved Dr. Sheppard had not murdered his wife. While the similarities between the Sam Sheppard case and The Fugitive seem considerable. Roy Huggins also denied that it played in any role in the inspiration for The Fugitive.

While Roy Huggins thought the had a great idea in The Fugitive, he initially had trouble interesting anyone in the concept. He showed it to fellow writer Howard Browne, with whom he had worked on such shows as Cheyenne and Maverick. Much to Roy Huggins's surprise, Howard Browne thought it was a terrible idea for a show. Undeterred, Roy Huggins showed it to his agent. He showed it to his agent, who had nearly the same reaction that Howard Browne had.  After he had taken the position at 20th Century Fox, Peter Levathes, then in charge of 20th CEntury Fox's television division, asked Roy Huggins for any ideas he had for television shows. He told him his idea for The Fugitive. In the biography Roy Huggins: Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and and The Rockford Files by Paul Green, Roy Huggins said, "When I finished he sat in stricken silence, staring at me as if I had just turned rancid before his very eyes."

It was while Roy Huggins was still at 20th Century Fox that he received a call from Burt Nodella, who was the executive in charge of development at the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). The two had become friends when Roy Huggins was still at Warner Bros., whose shows were aired by the network. Burt Nodella asked Roy Huggins to pitch some idea for TV shows for ABC. He then found himself in a Beverly Hills Hotel suite pitching the idea for The Fugitive to eight ABC executives. The ABC executive sat in silence after Roy Huggins finished his presentation, then let him know that they thought it was a bad idea. Fortunately, Leonard Goldensen, the head of ABC, was also present at the meeting. The various executives turned to him to see what he had to say. Mr. Goldensen loved the idea, stating "You know, Roy, that is the best f***ing idea I have hard for a television series in my life. When do you want to go to work."

At the time Roy Huggins could not produce The Fugitive as he was in graduate school, but he was willing to license the show to ABC and have someone else produce it. ABC had a contract with Quinn Martin, who had produced the network's hit series The Untouchables. As to Roy Huggins, he would receive credit as the show's creator and as a result royalties, and a percentage of the profits, and he would retain the book rights, stage rights, and film rights.

Cast in the role of Dr. Richard Kimble was David Janssen, who had earlier starred on the show Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Barry Morse was cast as Lt. Gerard. He had previously appeared in various film roles and made guest appearance on television, as well as starring on the CBC show Presenting Barry Morse. The One-Armed Man, later identified as Fred Johnson in the show's series finale, was played by Bill Raisch. The One-Armed Man was actually seen very rarely on the show and ultimately only appeared in ten episodes. William Conrad served as the show's narrator, explaining at the start of each episode how Richard Kimble was wrongfully convicted and how he escaped from a derailed train taking him to death row.

Beyond Dr. Kimble, Lt. Gerard and the One-Armed Man, there were only a few recurring characters. Jacqueline Scott appeared as Richard Kimble's sister, Donna Taft, in four episodes. Her husband, Leonard Taft, appeared in three episodes, played by a different actor each time. Lt. Gerard's superior at the Stafford, Indiana Police Department Captain Carpenter (Paul Birch), appeared in 13 episodes. Richard Kimble's late wife, Helen, appeared in flashbacks in three episodes, played by Diane Brewster in all but the episode "Ballad for a Ghost," where she was played by Janis Paige. Lt Gerard's wife, Marie, also appeared in three episodes, played by a different actress each time.

With Richard Kimble never staying put and travelling place to place, The Fugitive quite naturally featured several big name guest stars. In the episode ""Never Stop Running," Claude Akins played kidnapper Ralph Simmons. In "The One That Got Away," Charles Bronson played a police officer. In that same episode, Anne Francis appeared as Felice Greer, the wife of a man who had stolen $250,000 years ago. In "Death is the Door Prize,' Ossie Davis played Johnny Gaines, a retired police officer accused of murder. In "The Homecoming," Gloria Grahame and Shirley Knight played a stepmother and stepdaughter who are fighting. Several actors made multiple appearances on The Fugitive, playing different characters each time. Among them were Richard Anderson, Ed Asner, Ed Begley, Harold Gould, Dabbs Greer, Pat Hingle, Ted Knight, Suzanne Pleshette, Barbara Rush, and yet others.

Despite the many naysayers Roy Huggins encountered in trying to get The Fugitive on the air, it proved to be a hit. In its first season it ranked no. 28 in the Nielsen ratings for the year, extremely high for then struggling ABC. In its second season it did even better, ranking no. 5 for the year. It still ranked a respectable no. 34 for its third season. Ratings for The Fugitive dropped in its fourth season, although no. 50 for the year was still quite good for a show in the 1966-1967 season. The Fugitive also received positive reviews. It won the Emmy Award for Best Dramatic Series in 1966. It as also nominated for five other Emmy Awards.

By the fourth season of The Fugitive, David Jansen had grown weary of the show's demanding shooting schedule and also wanted a movie career. It was then that ABC announced in the winter of 1967 that the fourth season would the last season of The Fugitive. While The Fugitive remains famous for its series finale, the time as series finale was not a foregone conclusion. Many of the executives at ABC thought viewers had no interest in seeing Richard Kimble's story come to an end. Leonard Goldberg, then vice president of programming at ABC, argues that the show's fans were indeed emotionally invested in Richard Kimble's plight. They would want to know how his situation was resolved. Of major concern was how a definitive conclusion to the show might affect its chances in syndication.

Ultimately, producer Quinn Martin agreed with Leonard Goldberg that the show deserved a proper series finale. It was then that the two part episode, "The Judgement" was written by George Eckstein and Michael Zagor. To maximize it ratings, ABC aired "The Judgement" during the last two weeks of August. It was in "The Judgement" that the One-Armed Man is finally apprehended and Lt. Gerard at last realizes that Richard Kimble was innocent all along. While "The Judgement: Part I" did well in the rating, "The Judgement: Part II" did phenomenally well in the Neilsens. It was viewed by 72% of the television viewing audience, an estimated audience of 78 million people. It even broke the record previously held by the first appearance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Shows. Here it must stressed that The Fugitive was not the first American show to have a series finale. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp had a series finale that took place over the course of several episodes. Both Route 66 and Leave It to Beaver had series finales before The Fugitive.

Concerns that the series finale would have an adverse effect on the show in syndication proved to unwarranted. It had a successful run as a syndicated rerun on local television stations. Later it aired on A&E, TV Land, and Decades. The 1993 movie The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford, drew inspiration from the show. In 2000 a remake of the show, also titled The Fugitive, had a short run on CBS. In 2020 there was another new show titled The Fugitive, although when an entirely new character on the run. It ran on the short-lived streaming platform Quibi.

Sixty years after its debut, The Fugitive remains one of the most famous and most successful shows of all time. Much of it had to has to be due to the basic premise of the show, one in which a wrongly convicted man must go on the run to prove his innocent. It is a premise that is automatically filled with suspense. In many ways The Fugitive  was also a very sophisticated show. On any other show Lt. Gerard may have been presented as a base villain. On The Fugitive he was presented as a good man whose duty was simply to enforce the laws. Throughout its various episodes The Fugitive featured complex characters among the many people Richard Kimble helped. The Fugitive was not simply an action-adventure show, nor was it simply a drama. It truly transcended genres. It is perhaps because of this that The Fugitive remains popular to this day.

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