The Fugitive: One of the finest dramas of all time

The Fugitive: The Complete Series William Conrad (Actor), David Janssen (Actor), Multiple (Director)The Fugitive filmThe Fugitive

Viewers who tuned in to ABC at 10 PM on Sept. 17, 1963, a Tuesday, to try out the brand-new show entitled The Fugitive could have no idea that the program they were about to watch would soon develop into one of the true glories of 1960s television. Today, of course, The Fugitive needs no introduction, and you hardly need me to tell you of what a quality and timeless entertainment it remains to this day. Its story line has since become something of a classic, and you would need to have been living in a cave for the past half century not to be familiar with it. The program has since been transformed into a megahit 1993 film starring Harrison Ford, been reimagined into several more television programs, and been the subject of at least a half a dozen books, several conventions, and a lively Facebook fan page. Even those who have never seen or read any of the above probably know, merely by cultural osmosis, that the original TV program, over the course of 120 episodes evenly divided among four seasons, dealt with the story of Stafford, Indiana pediatrician Dr. Richard Kimble (played with a superabundance of charisma by David Janssen), who had left his house one evening after arguing with his wife Helen about the possibility of adoption (Mrs. Kimble had been adamantly against it), and had returned to find a one-armed man (Bill Raisch) fleeing from his home, and his wife beaten to death. Kimble had been arrested and, in a flagrant instance of miscarriage of justice, convicted of the crime on circumstantial evidence, and sentenced to death. But on the way to the death house, accompanied by police lieutenant Philip Gerard (the remarkably intense Barry Morse), the train that the men had been riding in had jumped its track and crashed, allowing Kimble to escape and setting in motion the plot line that would continue for the next four years. In a remarkably clever setup, Kimble would prosecute his search for the one-armed man (OAM) while Gerard would relentlessly prosecute his search for Kimble. (Fortunately for both men, as they conduct their seemingly impossible missions, the population of the U.S. was “only” around 190 million in the mid-‘60s, as opposed to the 330 million of today!)

And if this story line strikes one as being just a tad familiar, yes, it does owe more than a little to Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Miserables, with Kimble filling in for Jean Valjean and Gerard for Inspector Javert, but The Fugitive adds so much more to that original setup. This viewer used to love watching repeats of The Fugitive back in the ‘70s on TV, but had never watched all 120 episodes in order until just recently, courtesy of this very impressive-looking box set from CBS DVD. This recent binge has revealed to me that the program in question is not only one of the very finest dramas of the 1960s, but indeed of all time. I had previously deemed the slightly earlier Route 66 the finest drama of that illustrious decade, with its similarly rootless protagonists wandering around America and getting into scrapes every week with a cross section of the country’s populace, but The Fugitive may be even better. It has more of a drive and a purpose than the aimless peregrinations of Tod and Buz from that earlier program; more of a story arc; more suspense; more on the line. While both shows featured some truly sparkling scripts (Stirling Silliphant’s work on R66 was often remarkably poetic) and a roster of guest stars that was staggering in scope, The Fugitive was the more breathless of the two, its Kimble character literally running for his life in every hourlong segment.

And oh, the adventures that Richard Kimble gets into during his four-year odyssey! Viewers may ultimately come to think that the man is the recipient of both the worst luck AND the best luck in TV history. During the course of his 120 adventures, Kimble loses his eyesight several times, becomes an amnesiac once, and gets shot on at least four occasions. He encounters a great swath of American society, both the very poor and the very affluent. He works as a laborer in dozens of different jobs, and the lives of those whom he encounters are usually made better by having run into him. Coming off almost like some kind of wandering saint, Kimble time and again puts himself in harm’s way to help out those with whom he comes in contact. During his four years on the road, Kimble would run into backwoods moonshiners, sneak back into Stafford to see his sister Donna (Jacqueline Scott, playing one of the show’s few recurring characters), have numerous romances, work on several fishing vessels, hire on as a construction man, toil in the fields with migrant laborers, defuse a bomb, help prevent two different meningitis outbreaks, get caught in several hurricanes, be the target of a supercomputer, assist in putting out a California wildfire, be saddled on separate occasions with both Gerard’s son and blinded wife, have several adventures in Mexico, be accused of rape and child molestation, run afoul of a biker gang, be kidnapped by escaped cons, solve several murder mysteries, and become involved with any number of brutal sadists and mentally deranged women.

Many of the episodes —especially in the first three seasons, which were filmed in B&W before Season 4’s jarring transition to color — come off like mini film noirs; several boast scenes of such remarkable suspense that Alfred Hitchcock probably smiled upon them with approbation; a few of the outings, such as the somewhat disappointing Born Yesterday homage “The Chinese Sunset,” are more comedic in nature; and one, “Conspiracy of Silence,” almost feels like a Cold War spy/sci-fi adventure. (You see… there IS a reason for this review to be here on a sci-fi/fantasy/horror website!) Remarkably, though, there is not a single clinker in the bunch; not one episode that is not entertaining in some regard. The vast majority of the hours are of a very high caliber as regards writing, acting, casts, and cinematography. Wisely, the show’s creators kept Gerard out of the action around ¾ of the time (I believe he only appears in 37 episodes), and the OAM to much fewer than that (10, most of those occurring in Season 4). The hours with either of those two characters popping up are invariably some of the series’ finest. Throughout, though, the one constant in the program is the wonderfully underplayed thesping of Nebraska-born actor David Janssen as Kimble; I simply cannot imagine what this show would have been like without him. A figure of admiration for the men and an object of swooning desire for the ladies, he grounds the show and makes the good doctor a figure to root for every week.

Okay, I’m going to do a little name-dropping now. Here is a partial list of some of the more well-known players who appeared in those 120 episodes (although it might almost be easier to list who did NOT appear during the course of this wonderful series), many of whom were hardly household names at the time of their appearance, and many of whom appear in The Fugitive on more than one occasion, portraying different parts: Claude Akins, Ed Asner, Martin Balsam, Ed Begley, Paul Birch, Antoinette Bower, Beau Bridges, Charles Bronson, Geraldine Brooks, Joseph Campanella, Richard Carlson, Dabney Coleman, Michael Constantine, Patricia Crowley, James Daly, Kim Darby, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sandy Dennis, Bruce Dern, Angie Dickinson, Ivan Dixon, James Doohan, Melvyn Douglas, Robert Duvall, John Ericson, James Farentino, Glenda Farrell, Norman Fell, Anne Francis, Betty Garrett, Gloria Grahame, Lee Grant, Murray Hamilton, Eileen Heckart, Steven Hill, Pat Hingle, Earl Holliman, Celeste Holm, Clint and Ron Howard, Dean Jagger, Brian Keith, DeForest Kelley, Jack Klugman, Shirley Knight, Ted Knight, Hope Lange, Carol Lawrence, Jack Lord, Kevin McCarthy, John McGiver, Vera Miles, Joanna Moore, Greg Morris, Billy Mumy, Laurence Naismith, Ed Nelson, Lois Nettleton, Leslie Nielsen, Sheree North, Warren Oates, Arthur O’Connell, Carroll O’Connor, Tim O’Connor, Susan Oliver, Slim Pickens, Donald Pleasence, Suzanne Pleshette, Madlyn Rhue, Gilbert Roland, Mickey Rooney, Janice Rule, Barbara Rush, Kurt Russell, Albert Salmi, Telly Savalas, Brenda Scott, William Shatner, Tom Skerritt, Frank Sutton, Pamela Tiffin, Brenda Vaccaro, Jessica Walter, Jack Warden, Fritz Weaver, Robert Webber, Tuesday Weld, Jack Weston, William Windom and Lana Wood.

And those are just the names who I think you might know. Also scattered over the course of these 120 episodes are dozens of faces that you may have seen in countless programs of the 1960s; character actors who appeared on Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and, well, really, just about every other show of that decade, although you might be hard put to recall the names that go with those faces. Thus, the invaluable contributions of such terrific performers as Richard Anderson, Lou Antonio, Edward Binns, Peter Brocco, Paul Carr, Andrew Duggan, Dabbs Greer, Diana Hyland, Steve Ihnat, John Larch, Paul Mantee, Lin McCarthy, Phillip Pine, Percy Rodriguez, David Sheiner, Michael Strong, Malachi Throne and more … so many more. Truly, a wonderful assemblage of talent in front of the cameras, to help bring those terrific scripts to life.

From its very first episode, entitled “Fear In a Desert City” — very much a prototypical hour for the series, with Kimble coming to the aid of someone in distress, in this case an abused wife (Vera Miles) fleeing from her psycho husband (Brian Keith), and dishing out well-done segments of paranoia and violence — to its last — the famous series finale “The Judgment, Part 2,” which, when shown on August 29, 1967, would go down as THE most-watched hour in prime-time history for many years following — The Fugitive managed to maintain the very high quality of its 120 offerings to a remarkable degree. Thus, choosing Top 10 favorites is a somewhat daunting undertaking. But with some thought, I have managed to whittle down the many candidates to this following provisional group; a list that might very well change the next time I binge through this series. As will be seen, for me, my favorite episodes are the ones in which Kimble is placed into an almost impossible situation to extricate himself from, the outings in which the suspense or action quotient is very high, and the ones in which the story arc of the overall series is furthered by Kimble’s actually making some progress in his quest to exonerate himself.

And so, this list, from an admitted newbie, presented in chronological order: (1) “Search in a Windy City” — Kimble seeks the assistance of a newspaper reporter (Pat Hingle) in Chicago, not knowing that this journalist is under so much pressure for a story that he plans to betray the fugitive and turn him in. Nan Martin offers sterling support as the newsman’s alcoholic wife, but the main selling point here is Kimble’s first view of the OAM since the night of the murder, as his quarry gapes at him in amazement from a bus.

(2) “Nemesis” — Kimble takes off in a car in a rural area, unaware that Gerard’s young son, Phil Jr. (Kurt Russell), is asleep in the backseat. The interaction between the two, as Kimble flees through the mountainous forest region, with the wily Phil constantly trying to leave a trail for his father to follow, is wonderful, as are the shots via helicopter of the rugged terrain.

(3) “Brass Ring” — I am a big fan of the genre known as film noir, and this episode is just about as noirish as The Fugitive ever got, with Angie Dickinson very much a femme fatale in the classic mode, plotting with her boyfriend (John Ericson) to pin the murder of her brother (Robert Duvall) on Kimble. The scene with our hero hiding on a spinning carousel, while being shot at by a cop, is one of the most exciting in the entire series; almost an homage to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

(4) “Wife Killer” — In which Kimble captures the OAM after the latter is injured following a breakneck car chase, and forces a confession from him. This ep is also highlighted by wonderful performances by the gorgeous Janice Rule as tough reporter Barbara Webb and Kevin McCarthy as her ex. A superb episode, really.

(5) “Ill Wind” — Kimble would save the life of his enemy, Gerard, on more than one occasion during the course of this series, and this might be the best of those episodes. Here, the two are caught in a rickety barn, along with some farmworkers, during a raging hurricane in south Texas, during which Gerard is sorely wounded. Kimble’s initial glimpse of his pursuer in this ep is wonderfully dramatic, as the storm rages about, and the interaction between the two shackled men is fascinating to watch, and expertly played.

(6) “The 2130” — The one with that supercomputer, which a doctor (Melvyn Douglas) shows Gerard how to use to predict Kimble’s future movements, based on his past activities (and still another episode that verges into the realm of sci-fi, come to think of it). In a trio of very close shaves for Kimble, the computer accurately predicts where he will travel next, enabling the authorities to get very close indeed to their man.

(7) “Nobody Loses All the Time” — Even one-armed psychopaths need loving, it seems, and in this one, Kimble manages to find the OAM’s current galpal (Barbara Baxley), who he operates on following a hit-and-run. Joanna Moore adds wonderful support as a sympathetic nurse, and the episode is highlighted by a beautifully shot action sequence in which Kimble is trapped in the hospital by the cops, led by Phillip Pine, but later escapes to a nearby railway yard.

(8) “The One That Got Away” — I happen to be a big fan of both Anne Francis and Charles Bronson, so the prospect of seeing both these great actors for the first and only time together was one that I knew I would relish. And this episode, which takes place for the most part on board a yacht en route to Mexico, did not disappoint. Anne, playing the wife of an embezzler, looks absolutely beautiful, and Bronson is his tough-guy best.

(9) “The Ivy Maze” — The one in which Kimble’s old college friend, a professor played by William Windom, gets the OAM to participate in a sleep-deprivation experiment in order to compel a confession from him. And the ruse is indeed successful, up to a point. A fascinating hour, in which we get to hear of Helen Kimble’s murder straight from the killer’s mouth, and culminating in a highly suspenseful final 10 minutes.

(10) “The Judgment, Part 2” — How could this final episode of the series not make anyone’s Top 10 list? Here, we get to see, via flashback, what actually transpired on the night of Helen’s murder, and the revelation is a surprising one. And oh, that final sequence in the abandoned amusement park, with both Kimble and Gerard teamed up together to capture the OAM! The stuff of legends, truly. And as if these weren’t enough, we have that final epilog (all the Fugitive episodes were divided into four acts and an epilog), in which Kimble and Gerard shake hands in a moment of tremendous emotional impact; in which a cop car pulls up by Kimble and our hero starts, only to realize that he no longer needs to be frightened of the law; and in which our narrator, William Conrad, who had been our guide for the previous 119 outings, tells us “August 29th … the day the running stopped.” It is a wonderful coda to bring down the curtain on one of the finest dramas of all time.

With 120 episodes’ worth of wonderful performances, choosing 10 outstanding acting turns is an extremely difficult proposition. But if I HAD to honor 10 terrific ones (putting aside from consideration those featured in my 10 favorite episodes, largely because the acting turns in those episodes were largely responsible for those hours being what they are themselves), they might be (again, in chronological order):

(1) Jack Weston in “Fatso” — You might recall how wonderful character actor Weston was in films such as Wait Until Dark and A New Leaf, and he is similarly terrific here playing the part of overweight, alcoholic Davey “Fatso” Lambert, with whom Kimble busts out of a jail cell in Kentucky. Back at the ranch that Davey used to call home, we see how his father and brother have cruelly blamed him for a recent tragedy, with his Mom (‘30s star Glenda Farrell) Davey’s only supporter, and Weston, playing it drunk, hostile, defensive or redeemed, is simply aces throughout.

(2) Gloria Grahame in “The Homecoming” — Grahame was one of the finest film noir talents of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and here, playing the duplicitous, formerly white trash Southern belle Dorina Pruitt, she reminds us again of how well she could play the nasty schemer. Gloria was always fascinating to watch on screen, and she doesn’t disappoint here.

(3) Ed Begley in “Man in a Chariot” — Begley was surely one of the finest character actors who has ever lived — perhaps you will recall how intense he was in films such as 12 Angry Men, Odds Against Tomorrow and Billion Dollar Brain — and here, playing the paraplegic, wheelchair-confined, former lawyer G. Stanley Lazer, he delivers a performance of marvelous vitality. The final segment of his mock trial of Kimble before a group of students surely constitutes some of the finest acting in this legendary series.

(4) Suzanne Pleshette in “World’s End” — Those viewers who only know Suzanne from her work in The Bob Newhart Show might not be aware of how terrific she could be as a dramatic actress, and this episode, in which she plays Eleanor Burnett, the daughter of Kimble’s former defense attorney, might just be an eye-opener for them. Pleshette is at once sexy, vulnerable, rebellious and ultimately self-sacrificing in this outstanding portrayal.

(5) Tuesday Weld in “Dark Corner” — Another gorgeous actress who does not seem to get nearly enough credit for her dramatic acting chops, Tuesday makes a big impression here as Mattie Braydon, a sculptress who suffers from hysterical blindness, who has committed murder in the past and might just do so again to get what she wants. In a performance that almost comes off like a warm-up for Weld’s cult film Pretty Poison, the actress gives a quite memorable portrayal here.

(6) Pat Hingle in “Nicest Fella You’d Ever Want to Meet” — Hingle could just as easily have made this list for his work in the above-mentioned “Search in a Windy City,” but here, playing the sadistic small-town sheriff Joe Bob Sims, the great character actor gave us what could be the most intimidating character in all of Fugitivedom. It is a simply terrific portrayal of a man whom the world sees as a kindly and garrulous salt-of-the-earth type, but who is, deep down, as nasty as they come, in one of the most suspenseful episodes of the entire series.

(7) Mickey Rooney in “This’ll Kill You” — Rooney is a performer who surely needs no introduction; a thespian of unrivalled energy since his start in films as a child actor in the ‘30s. Here, the 45-year-old Rooney plays the part of Charlie Paris, a Laundromat owner and former Mob bookie, now in major-league trouble for testifying against some of his former associates. Mickey gives us here a hugely likeable and typically high-energy performance as the beleaguered friend of Kimble; a basically decent man whose love for a worthless woman (Nita Talbot) ultimately proves to be his undoing.

(8) Jack Warden in “Concrete Evidence” — Warden was still another in the top echelon of great character actors (you might recall his work from 12 Angry Men, Shampoo and All the President’s Men), and here, he gives us another of his wonderful contributions. Playing the part of “Pat” Patton — a construction company owner who had formerly used faulty concrete in the building of a movie theater, resulting in its collapse and the deaths of several children, and now trying to make amends while fighting against time, lack of funds, and a heart condition — he offers up a performance that is surely one of this series’ best. Highlight the following line of text if you want to view a spoiler: His death scene at the film’s tail end is remarkably convincing.

(9) Eileen Heckart in “Breaking of the Habit” — Heckart, playing the role of Sister Veronica, might just as easily have made this list for playing the part in the Season 1 two-parter “Angels Travel on Lonely Roads.” But in this return to the role, three years later, Heckart is even better, as she assists Kimble in finding the OAM, all the while dying of a brain tumor. Her final conversation with our hero is surely one to induce tears, and Heckart plays it like the pro she was.

(10) Janice Rule in “The Walls of Night” — Again, Rule is a Fugitive performer who could just as easily have made this list for her work in another episode, the previously mentioned “Wife Killer,” but here, she might be even better. Playing the part of Barbara Wells, a radio dispatcher for a trucking company in Portland, Oregon and, unbeknownst to Kimble, a former embezzler now working courtesy of a prison work-release program, she brings great pathos to the role of a woman who is willing to risk it all for love and flight. Rule was a hugely underrated actress, as regards both talent and beauty, and her work here makes this episode the most, uh, romantic of the entire series.

I have just realized that the above list of 10 outstanding performances cleaves evenly between five male and five female. That was not intentional, but I’m glad it worked out that way. And again, this is a list that might very well change the next time I binge watch through this series.

Now, as for this CBS DVD box set itself, it is a rather pleasing package, with the 120 episodes divided amongst 32 discs. Picture image and sound quality are both of a very fine order — granted, I watched these DVDs on a Blu-ray player, which does tend to upgrade the quality of both sound and picture — and indeed, this viewer could not have hoped for better. The episodes also feature the option of subtitles for those who are hearing impaired, always a nice thing to have provided, and the print quality of all 120 outings is absolutely pristine. As for extras, the box set that I own, entitled The Fugitive: The Complete Series, is rather skimpy in that regard, being confined to two 15-minute interviews with composer Dominic Frontiere, whose work for The Outer Limits was oddly used in Season 4 of The Fugitive. I hear that other packages of this series are much more generous in that regard.

Another complaint that I would like to lodge is the fact that the package itself is rather shoddily constructed; indeed, the entire plastic tray in which the discs reside instantly loosed itself from the rest of the casing after just a few uses. But other than those two quibbles, this box set of The Fugitive served me quite well, and I strongly urge those who have not yet experienced this classic series to avail themselves of this particular DVD package or one that is similar. Those purchasers will then find themselves the owners of one of the very finest dramas of all time…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. Thank you Sandy!

    My husband was searching for Christmas presents for me. He recalled me mentioning a series (The Prisoner) and could not quite recall the title. He bought this very collection of The Fugitive and hid it so well that it only turned up a few days ago. I do remember enjoying it the first time around, as broadcast. Good to know it is a ‘keeper’!

    • Sandy Ferber /

      “The Prisoner” is probably the finest television show of all time, IMHO. “The Fugitive” is of course a completely different show, in practically every respect, but it really is a terrifically well-done program, nonetheless. Consider this serendipity! And besides, “The Prisoner” would have only provided you with 17 hours’ worth of entertainment; “The Fugitive” will give you a solid 120. Enjoy!

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