“The name: Dr. Richard Kimble. The destination: Death row, state prison. The irony? Richard Kimble is innocent.”
Those words, delivered by narrator William Conrad, began the opening narration of The Fugitive (1963-1967), one of the best TV series made. Stephen King, in his introduction to Ed Robertson’s 30th anniversary book, The Fugitive Recaptured, said “it was at the time (and still is, when you see the reruns) absolutely the best series done on American television.” I don’t know if I’d call it the absolute best, but I’d say The Fugitive belongs in the top 10, if not the top five.
The series concerned the efforts of pediatrician Dr. Kimble (David Janssen), convicted of the murder of his wife, Helen, to find the real killer, a one-armed man (Bill Raisch) he saw running from the vicinity of his home shortly before discovering Helen’s body. My first exposure to the series came in the 70s via a passing reference in a Dynamite Magazine article about the Logan’s Run TV show. To wit: that the people behind that show hoped Logan’s… um… run would be as long and as successful (ratings-wise) as Dr. Kimble’s had been (it wasn’t). But I didn’t see any episodes until 1989, when the local CBS channel began airing re-runs. I had, however, read more about it in the interim.
Ironically, this great show almost didn’t get made. In The Fugitive Recaptured (pages 17-18) series creator Roy Huggins revealed that he’d wanted to create a contemporary analog to the wandering western hero, but realized a modern-day character who drifted about would come across as a bum. So Huggins thought of a wrongly accused and convicted fugitive from justice, seeking to clear his name. Such a man can’t remain in one place. However, everyone he initially brought the concept to was repulsed at the idea. Apparently, they couldn’t grasp the key fact that Dr. Kimble was innocent. Eventually, then ABC president Leonard Goldenson bought it. And the rest was history.
The Fugitive was also the first American TV series to have a definite conclusion, in which Dr. Kimble was finally exonerated. It was a decision producer Quinn Martin wouldn’t have made if he’d had to do it over again, co-producer George Eckstein told Ed Robertson in The Fugitive Recaptured (page 173); but as Robertson relates, Martin’s fears that the show wouldn’t enjoy syndication value later proved unfounded. Robertson reports that when A & E renewed its right to the series in 1992, it was one of the channel’s most highly rated programs in its daytime lineup.
That final episode held the record as the most watched episode on American TV until it was superseded by the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas and then the final episode of M*A*S*H (or just M*A*S*H, if you’re considering finales alone).
The Fugitive enjoyed both great acting and great writing, but one thing I especially liked was that Dr. Kimble’s implacable pursuer, Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse), looked like an ordinary person, not the typical Hollywood image of a determined cop. He was middle-aged, balding and wore glasses. In reading about Gerard— who had the sort of tenacity that would’ve had the Terminator saying “relax, will you?”— I had conjured a certain mental image (I hadn’t seen any photos of Morse at the time). When I finally saw the series, the reality was refreshingly different.
One thing that fascinates me about Lt. Gerard is a certain dichotomy about the character. I’d hoped to meet Barry Morse at the 2006 Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Convention to ask him his thoughts about the character. However, he had to cancel his appearance and there wasn’t another opportunity to see him at another such event before he died.
Anyway, some brief examples of this dichotomy (not necessarily in broadcast order): In “Corner of Hell”, despite being accused of attacking a young woman after pursuing Kimble into the woods and offering as his only defense that he saw a man with baseball cap flee the scene (pretty much all the men in that community wore baseball caps), Gerard still insisted the one-armed man was a fantasy.
Yet, in “Somebody to Remember”, when a woman named Sophie suggested “Johnny” (Kimble) killed a man named Gus because Gus discovered the truth, Gerard told her, “He’s been spotted before. He hasn’t killed.”
“He killed his wife, didn’t he?”
“The law says he did.”
Gerard’s tone suggests he personally has doubts about Kimble’s guilt.
In “Nightmare at Northoak”, Gerard’s response to the sheriff’s wife’s question of whether Kimble really killed his wife was “the law says he did. I enforce the law.” He’s made similar statements in other episodes. Just contrasting those episodes with “Somebody to Remember” suggests that Gerard puts aside his doubts to carry out the dictates of the law.
So, did Gerard’s insistence in “Corner of Hell” that the one-armed man is a fantasy stem from his attempts to convince himself of that? Are these different “sides” of Gerard (and I could cite other episodes as well) the result of different writers giving the character contradictory attitudes about Kimble; or did The Fugitive writing staff (and Barry Morse) deliberately set out to make Gerard somewhat self-contradictory? I suspect it’s the latter (in part based on some comments Morse made in The Fugitive Recaptured), but I’d have loved to have talked to him about it.
Gerard’s name, by the way, was a deliberate echo of Javert, the man who hounded Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (something Morse himself picked up on). There were key differences, however. By the final episode, Gerard accepted that Kimble was innocent. Javert couldn’t reconcile himself to the fact that Jean Valjean didn’t deserve to be hounded all those years and killed himself.
Gerard was only in about 1/3 of the 120 episodes, but as Morse said in one of his introductions to a set of Fugitive videotapes released by Nu Ventures in 1991, there was always the sense that he was “just around the corner.” In fact, Morse related how in the years following the show, people insisted Gerard had been in every episode. To my way of thinking, this “certainty” is a testimony to the impact Barry Morse made.
The Fugitive is now out on DVD and is probably being shown in reruns somewhere. It’s an excellent series, well worth watching.
Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating