The Fugitive

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The Fugitive

A man wrongly convicted of the murder of his wife escapes the train taking him to death row. He wanders America in search of the real killer, a one-armed man, pursued by the lieutenant who investigated the murder and lost the prisoner. This was the story of the ABC television drama The Fugitive. The saga of Dr. Richard Kimble and Lt. Gerard, a mix of Les Miserables and a real life case, produced not only the highest rated television series broadcast of the 1960s, but also a hit movie and a sequel in the 1990s.

The series first aired September 17, 1963. Roy Huggins, who had created Maverick and would co-create The Rockford Files, devised The Fugitive based heavily on the Victor Hugo novel Les Miserables, with Lt. Gerard based on Inspector Javert, the indefatigable pursuer. But The Fugitive was also inspired by the real-life case of Dr. Sam Shepard, who was sentenced to prison for killing his wife after a sensational trial. He always maintained someone else had killed his wife and in fact he was later acquitted after winning a new trial. (The appeal, based on the circuslike atmosphere of the original trial, went to the United States Supreme Court and launched the career of F. Lee Bailey. Shepard died a few years after his release, tarnished by the case. His son is still trying to have the state of Ohio pardon his father, due to the fact that later DNA testing of blood evidence indicates that Shepard may not have been the murderer.)

Huggins devised the basic plot, explained in the opening narration of each episode. Dr. Richard Kimble, convicted of killing his wife, was riding to prison on a train, shackled to Lt. Gerard. Kimble was still insisting a one-armed man killed his wife. The train crashed, Kimble was thrown clear, and escaped. Dyeing his hair, changing his name, he traveled America, working a series of odd jobs and intruding on guest stars' crises, always eluding Lt. Gerard. David Janssen, with his world-weary manner and voice, played Kimble; Barry Morse showed up several times a season as Gerard. Bill Raisch played the one-armed man. The series trademark was actor William Conrad's dramatic voiceover in the title sequence, explaining the backstory, and announcing "The Fugitive—A QM Production." (QM stood for producer Quinn Martin). The series won an Emmy for best Drama in 1965-66 (its only nomination), and Janssen was nominated several times for best actor (1963-64, 1964-65, and 1966-67).

In 1967, ABC cancelled the series and producers decided to go out with a flourish, wrapping up the story in a two-part episode airing at the very end of The Fugitive's last season. The final episode, airing August 29, 1967, had Kimble corner the one-armed man and Gerard arrive in time to hear the man confess. Conrad read the closing narration, "August 29. The day the running stopped." The episode was the most viewed episode of a regular series until that time and its 72 percent share of the viewing audience stood as a landmark until the "Who Shot JR?" resolution episode of Dallas. Ironically, the show's famous ending was said to have worked against it. While ABC ran daytime repeats of the series the following year (April 1967 to March 1968), the series was never a big hit in syndication.

In the 1990s, with the burgeoning market for revivals of old TV series, The Fugitive seemed to be a natural, despite the death of Janssen. It took a while to get off the ground, but the movie finally made it to the screen in August 1993. Dr. Richard Kimble became a top-notch surgeon in Chicago, whose wife is murdered by a one-armed man as part of a plot to cover up a medical company's corruption. Again, Kimble escapes in a spectacular train crash. However, he's hunted by a federal officer this time, U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, who has no connection with the case (and, famously, when Kimble insists "I didn't kill my wife" responds, "I don't care").

The movie focused on Kimble's efforts to track the one-armed man while Gerard and his oddball team try to track Kimble. Gerard investigates the crime in an effort to find Kimble, but he uncovers more and more evidence that Kimble didn't commit the crime until, like the original Gerard, he is on Kimble's side when he confronts the villain. The presence of Harrison Ford as Kimble, plus the taut script, made the movie a hit, but it was Tommy Lee Jones as Gerard who stole the show, and the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. The film's other Oscar nominations were for Best Picture, Sound Effects Editing, Film Editing, Original Score, and Sound.

After much wrangling over whether Ford would be back for the inevitable sequel, it was Jones and his ragtag team who made it to the 1998 sequel, U.S. Marshals, in which they sought another fugitive.

—Michele Lellouche

Further Reading:

Robertson, Ed. The Fugitive Recaptured: The 30th Anniversary Companion to a Television Classic. Beverly Hills, California, Pomegranate Press, 1996.