Thursday, August 30, 2007

“Richard Kimble Is Innocent”

You probably don’t remember this, but it was 40 years ago this week (actually, 40 years ago yesterday) that the final episode of The Fugitive was broadcast on American television, bringing to a dramatic close the story of Dr. Richard Kimble’s pursuit of the elusive One-Armed Man and supplying answers to the mystery of who murdered his wife--and then left Kimble to be accused of the heinous crime.

That ABC series, of course, featured David Janssen (later to headline the mid-’70s detective series Harry O). It was allegedly based on “a six-page format, inspired by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables” and written by Roy Huggins (who also created the landmark series Maverick and The Rockford Files). After four years, The Fugitive finally concluded its popular run on Tuesday, August 29, 1967--better known by fans as The Day the Running Stopped--with the second installment of a two-part episode titled “The Judgment,” in which a dramatic confrontation between Kimble and the One-Armed Man at a Southern California amusement park ends with the cop who, for all this time, has been chasing after the wrongly accused doctor, shooting the real killer. When it originally aired, “The Judgment: Part 2” was the most-watched U.S. TV episode of all time, with 45.9 percent of American households having tuned in. (As of my last check, however, that show had fallen to the No. 18 spot, but remained the only program in the top-30 rundown that was broadcast prior to the year 1970.)

This is particularly ironic, when you consider that The Fugitive--with its William Conrad (Cannon) narration and tension-packed introduction--almost didn’t make it to the small screen. As Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer columnist J. Peder Zane recalled,
The moral question at the heart of the upheavals of the 1960s also infused “The Fugitive”: Should laws and traditions guide our actions or personal conscience? To appreciate how path-making the show was, consider the resistance creator Roy Huggins encountered when he first pitched his idea about “an innocent victim of blind justice” in 1959. Everyone from family and friends to network executives found the idea repulsive. ABC, the last-place network desperate for new programming, finally bought the series in 1963.

In most episodes, a moment comes when Kimble’s true identity is revealed to someone he has known a short while. The character must decide: Do I turn in a man society brands a wife killer, or do I trust my own instincts, which say the authorities are wrong, and help him escape?
However, The Fugitive turned out to have tremendous viewer appeal, for several reasons, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications:
Using the general format of an anthology show, but with continuing characters (in the manner of the contemporary Herbert Leonard series Naked City and Route 66), the producers, writers and directors were given license to deal with characters, settings and stories not usually associated with what was in essence a simple man-on-the-run theme. Under various nondescript aliases (but most frequently as “Jim”), Kimble traversed the United States in pursuit of the One-Armed Man and along the way became involved with ordinary people who were usually at an emotional cross-roads in their lives. ...

Not unlike the Western hero, which U.S. television had embraced since the 1950s and with which it still had something of an infatuation, Kimble had the appeal of the rootless wanderer whose commitments to jobs, women or society were temporary, yet who at the same time deserved our sympathy as something of a tragic figure. The series’ and the introspective character’s success lay largely with the appeal of actor David Janssen’s intensity in the part (Janssen’s first television hit had been as the lead in the slick Richard Diamond, Private Eye series of 1957-60). The drama of the stories came not so much from the transient occupations of the fleeing hero, such as sail mender in Hank Searls “Never Wave Good-bye” or dog handler in Harry Kronman’s “Bloodline,” but from the dilemma of the Kimble character himself, something Janssen was able to convey with an almost nervous charm.
This month’s release of The Fugitive: Season One, Volume 1 on DVD is an excellent reminder of Janssen’s talents, and will likely bring this series to the attention of generations too young to have watched it the first time around. The same ones who associate The Fugitive only with the 1993 Harrison Ford film remake or the short-lived 2000 CBS-TV revival series starring Tim Daly (formerly of Wings).

More welcome reminders of the Janssen series come from a recent installment of Talking Television with Dave White, broadcast on “global radio station” Moderated by Ed Robertson, author of The Fugitive Recaptured: The 30th Anniversary Companion to a Television Classic (1993), this episode featured an enlightening discussion of The Fugitive and its final chapter (the follow-up to a Talking Television tribute to “Famous Final Episodes” that was broadcast in late July). It deals particularly with the networks’ hesitancy about buying The Fugitive, the copycat shows that came in the wake of its success, and the networks’ general resistance to offering final episodes of any TV series. You can listen to the show here. (Note: The first half deals with The Fugitive, while the latter half brings in Robert Newhart, son of Bob Newhart, who talks about the famous 1990 surprise ending of Newhart.)

To get a flavor of The Fugitive, or be reminded of its assets, here’s the opening segment from the last episode:

READ MORE:15 Greatest TV Characters of the 1960s: Richard Kimble,” by Rick29 (Classic Film and TV Café); “The Fugitive Broke New Ground to Become an Unlikely Hit,” by Stephen Bowie (A.V. Club); “Serge Krizman, 1914-2008,” by Stephen Bowie (The Classic TV History Blog).

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