The Fugitive: How a Fictional Character on the Run Taught Us Empathy and Civil Courage Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Fugitive: How a Fictional Character on the Run Taught Us Empathy and Civil Courage

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A man and his shadow running along a cobbled street
He thinks of the day when he might find the man with one arm, but now is now, and this is how it is with him. Another journey, another place. Walk neither too fast, nor too slow. Beware the eyes of strangers. Keep moving…
– William Conrad, narrating The Fugitive

From 1963 to 1967, television viewers in the US – and, eventually, abroad – experienced a new kind of drama in between their broadcast commercials. An unusual series for its time, with a beginning, a long middle, and an end, The Fugitive was the often-harrowing tale of an innocent man on the run from injustice. With high production values and exceptionally good writing and acting, the series was also ground-breaking both in terms of theme and dramatic structure. Although few may remember it today, the series was influential in the thought of the 1960s, and changed the way television drama was presented.

As was so often the case in early US television, the story begins with a former communist.

What Roy Huggins Did

Novelist and film producer Roy Huggins (1914-2002) joined the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in the 1930s. He left the party when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939. However, his party membership came back to haunt him: in 1952, he was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). To avoid being imprisoned for 'contempt of Congress', it was necessary to answer questions, which he did. It was also necessary to 'name names' – that is, implicate other communists and former communists. Huggins did this, too: he named 19 people who had already been outted to the Committee. They let him go, and he went back to television production. He was very successful at it.

In the early 1960s, Huggins had an idea he wanted to develop: a series about an unjustly condemned man who roamed the United States incognito in an attempt to clear his name. His attempts to sell this idea to his network associates met with reactions ranging from stony silence to pained incredulity. He was advised, for the sake of his professional reputation, to stop talking about this crazy idea.

Finally, he decided that he would quit producing for a time and go back to university. Just as he did, though, a television producer was interested: Leonard Goldenson, the head of ABC. At an otherwise hostile story conference in which all the other participants were shuffling their feet or looking at their watches, Goldenson listened intently, then said, 'That's the best story idea I've ever heard!' In spite of the protest of his second-in-command that the story was 'un-American' and insulted the justice system by implying that it made mistakes, Goldenson wanted Huggins to produce the show. Goldenson in turn was astonished when Huggins refused: he was busy working on his doctorate. (How could an academic project be more important than a hit TV series? Seriously.) Huggins suggested another producer: Quinn Martin1. The Fugitive was underway.

What 'The Fugitive' Was About

The Fugitive. A QM production... starring David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, an innocent victim of blind justice, falsely convicted for the murder of his wife, reprieved by Fate when a train wreck freed him en route to the death house, freed him to hide in lonely desperation; to change his identity, to toil at many jobs; freed him to search for a one-armed man he saw leave the scene of the crime; freed him to run before the relentless pursuit of the police lieutenant obsessed with his capture.
– William Conrad, voiceover introduction to The Fugitive

The plot: Pediatrician Dr Richard Kimble has been wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife Helen. The audience knows he didn't do it, but Lieutenant Gerard, who is bringing Kimble to prison to await execution, does not. The train derails: Kimble escapes. The next four years' worth of television find Dr Kimble each week incognito in a new town, eking out a living among the working class and staying a scant step ahead of the police. Lieutenant Gerard pursues him implacably. The fourth season ends satisfactorily: the real murderer is found. Gerard admits he was wrong.

The plot summary fails to explain why this show was so popular, or why actor David Janssen captured audience imaginations while eluding Lieutenant Gerard. Not only is Dr Kimble innocent, but he is endlessly compassionate to a heroic degree: again and again, he is drawn into the lives of the people among whom he is hiding. He risks exposure in order to save others.

This is a show with one 'regular' and hundreds of 'guest stars'. The audience judges the guest characters according to their treatment of The Fugitive. Richard Kimble serves as a one-man test of others' compassion.

Dramatis Personae

…David Janssen – he of the big ears and basset-hound eyes, surely the saddest face in America; he looked even more depressed when he smiled…
– Georgia Jones-Davis, 'Keep On Running', Los Angeles Times, 12 September, 1993

Dr Richard Kimble: David Janssen played this role in every one of the 120 episodes. He appeared in almost every scene. The 12-hour-a-day schedule was exhausting. And dangerous: in the pilot episode, he and actor Brian Keith were fighting at a bus station. A blow mislanded and cracked three of Janssen's ribs. He kept on with the scene, as tenacious as his beleaguered character.

Janssen portrayed Kimble in a realistic way, with no false heroics. The character is haunted and frightened, startling at every noise, afraid of any policeman he sees. He avoids looking directly at other people. But he can't help himself from trying to solve their problems: vulnerable people excite his compassion even while he is running for his life.

Lieutenant Gerard: Barry Morse, a Cockney from London, was a RADA graduate and Shakespearean actor. His accent and manner as an American police detective of the 'hard-boiled' persuasion is completely convincing. Unwilling to portray a one-sided 'cop character', Morse consulted Quinn Martin and determined that the plot of The Fugitive was, in fact, loosely lifted from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables2, and that he was playing Javert. Morse read the novel carefully, and enthusiastically embraced the conflicted persecutor.

Morse recalled with amusement that he was as generally hated as Janssen was loved. Complete strangers berated him in public. Part of the fun of the series for the audience was often watching Lieutenant Gerard suffer for a change: in one episode, he almost drowns in an ocean squall while doggedly pursuing Kimble in a rubber dinghy. In another, he tracks The Fugitive to a mountain cabin. Kimble is no threat: he is trying to open a can of Spam one-handed after being in a vehicular accident. Unfortunately for Gerard, there is another troubled soul present (Telly Savalas), who shoots the detective and allows Kimble to escape. Off-set, Janssen and Morse were good friends, but the studio urged them not to be seen together: it wouldn't do for 'Kimble' and 'Gerard' to dine publicly in a restaurant.

The One-Armed Man: Actor/dancer/stuntman Bill Raisch lost his arm while serving in the Merchant Marine during the Second World War. His disability led to his being typecast as a 'bad guy'. His Fugitive character was Number 5 on TV Guide's 2013 list of 'The 60 Nastiest Villains of All Time'3, .

The Narrator: Featured at the beginning and end of every episode, William Conrad's deep-voiced, portentous narration is practically a character in its own right. Conrad was a veteran radio actor and the original 'Matt Dillon' from Gunsmoke before television demanded a more telegenic portrayal. Conrad's voice will be familiar to fans of Rocky and Bullwinkle: he narrated the cartoon series, too.

Everyone Else: Kimble has to keep moving, so the show featured a new cast every week. Some remarkable names appeared on the guest list: Bruce Dern, Leslie Nielsen, James Doohan, William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Charles Bronson, and Angie Dickinson, to name a few.

How 'The Fugitive' Made Television History

Tuesday, August 29. The day the running stopped.
– William Conrad, closing narration.

Roy Huggins had stated from the outset that The Fugitive would end with the complete exoneration of Richard Kimble. This was a new idea to studio executives, who didn't particularly like it. They thought closing a story would 'hurt them in syndication'. Why would anyone want to watch reruns of a series if they already knew how the story came out? Besides, television heroes existed in an eternal present: the Cisco Kid and Lone Ranger still roamed the Plains, Marshal Dillon still kept order in town, and Andy Taylor was forever sheriff of Mayberry, North Carolina. But Quinn Martin insisted they end the show as Huggins had suggested: the audience was too invested in Richard Kimble's welfare to leave the story open-ended.

On 25 August, 1967, US audiences4 had the satisfaction of knowing that Richard Kimble was now a free man. The One-Armed Man was dead – shot by Lieutenant Gerard – but an eyewitness to the murder of Helen Kimble had come forward. The eyewitness, city planner Lloyd Chandler, had kept quiet all this time because of fear of exposure for his cowardice in failing to prevent the murder.

To the studio's astonishment, a record 72 share (in Nielsen rating terms) of homes watching television viewed the show. That meant that 78 million people were tuned to the last episode of The Fugitive5. This record wasn't broken until 1980 (by the reveal of 'Who shot JR?' in Dallas). The popularity of the ending showed that audiences wanted to hear 'the rest of the story.' The way was paved for more engaging and realistic drama.

What Made 'The Fugitive' Resonate with Americans in the mid-1960s?

Television studio executives in 1963 – and, for that matter, screenwriters and showrunners in 1963 – belonged to an older generation than a lot of their audience. They may be pardoned for believing that what television viewers wanted from drama was a sense of comfort and stability, plus the reassurance that authority figures had one's best interests at heart. But younger viewers were becoming uneasy about 'The Establishment'. They weren't so sure they trusted those in authority any longer. Thoughtful older viewers also identified with the individual's right to defend himself when threatened, even by the state.

Some modern viewers have commented on the 'Christlike' nature of Kimble. He could be compared to Philip K Dick's Wilbur Mercer. His fans certainly exhibit the empathy of Mercerites in their willingness to suffer vicariously with Dr Kimble.

An example of why the series 'worked' for audiences can be seen from a representative episode. This one is called 'Nightmare at Northoak'. In this episode, not only Kimble but also an entire town resist authority.

Nightmare at Northoak

(in a dream sequence Kimble is cornered by Lieutenant Gerard)
Lt. Gerard: Finally, Kimble! (draws his gun) Finally.
Opening Narration: This is Richard Kimble's recurring nightmare, and each time it ends, he wonders whether he will awaken to the same nightmare of reality.
(Gerard shoots and Kimble immediately wakes up, back in reality)

Richard Kimble wakes from this recurring nightmare to find himself sleeping rough beside a country road. A school bus has crashed very near him. The children are trapped in the bus, which has caught fire. Kimble runs to the bus, wrenching open the emergency door and helping the children out. Then he enters the burning vehicle to rescue a trapped child and the unconscious driver. After helping everyone to safety, Kimble himself is knocked out by the exploding petrol.

To his horror, he wakes up in the sheriff's home. The townspeople are eager to express their gratitude to him and shower him with gifts and donations of food. Of course, all Kimble wants to do is to sneak out of town, but he is concussed and shaky, with blurry vision. To make matters worse, the sheriff's young son agrees to take a photo of the sleeping 'Mr Porter' for the local newspaper. Before we can shout, 'No!', Lieutenant Gerard is on the phone and the sheriff is apologetically taking Kimble's fingerprints6.

Gerard arrives, impatient to claim his prisoner as soon as the paperwork has cleared. There is a window of three hours, during which time people argue about abstract justice and allow Gerard and Kimble to stare meaningfully at one another7. The townspeople insist on being allowed to shake hands with Kimble to thank him for his kindness. When Gerard arrives back from at the jail after a home-cooked meal at the sheriff's house, Kimble is gone – because, of course, one of the townspeople has slipped him the keys.

Gerard is outraged8. He threatens the sheriff with prosecution. The sheriff's wife claims that it was she who gave Kimble the keys. Gerard threatens to arrest her. One by one, everyone in the room claims to have released the prisoner. This is correctly identified by the TV Tropes website as the 'I Am Spartacus' moment. The colleagues of Dalton Trumbo have struck again. Kimble, meanwhile, is seen hitchhiking on some lonely highway, on to the next unsettling adventure.

For Further Research

For Richard Kimble, another shabby room, another lonely night, another reaching out to touch someone he has met along the way…
– William Conrad, yet again

'Nightmare at Northoak' can be viewed for free on Internet Archive.

You can learn possibly more than you ever wanted to know about this landmark series by listening to the audiobook of Ed Robertson's The Fugitive Recaptured on Youtube. This version includes the introduction by Stephen King.

Highly recommended is this blogpost entitled 'The Day the Running Finally Stopped: Barry Morse (1918-2008)'.

Do you long for some really intellectual discussion of the social significance of The Fugitive? There's a whole master's thesis on the subject. See David P Pierson, A Historical/Critical Analysis of the TV Series The Fugitive. Master of Science (Radio/TV/Film), May 1993, 168 pp., University of North Texas.

1Quinn Martin (1922-1987), birth name Irwin Martin Cohn, was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1997. His successful programmes include Twelve O'Clock High, The F.B.I., The Invaders, The Streets of San Francisco, Cannon, and Barnaby Jones.2Lifting a plot idea like this was called 'a haircut' in the trade. Morse commented that all actors were shoplifters, and that if you were going shoplifting it was better to head for Cartier than Woolworth.3Much has been made by some observers of a supposed resemblance between The Fugitive and the real-life murder trials of Dr Samuel Sheppard, who spent ten years in prison for the murder of his wife before being exonerated in a retrial. The two narratives have little in common besides the idea of a doctor (allegedly) murdering his wife and the accused's claim that he had seen the real murderer running away. However, Quinn Martin was aware enough of possible parallels to have changed Roy Huggins' perpetrator from a 'red-haired man' to one with one arm, especially since they had a talented stuntman who could play the part.4European audiences had to wait until early September, what with the dubbing.5More than had watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.6David Janssen was fingerprinted on-camera so often, he must have been tired of the ink stains. We remind younger readers that there was no DNA analysis in 1964.7At one point, Kimble admits he has no idea how Gerard's mind works. Years later, Stephen King wrote that Gerard went 'further and further into freako land', a mental space Victor Hugo might have appreciated.8See previous footnote.

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