In our current age of Hulu, Netflix, You Tube and live streaming, it would now be hard to imagine everyone in the country watching the same show on the exact same day at the exact same hour of the day, unless of course it was a major sports or news event. But that most certainly was the case on the night of Tuesday, August 29, 1967, when tens of millions of Americans tuned into ABC television at 10pm to experience the conclusion of Dr. Richard Kimble’s four-year saga as the innocent man fleeing from the law…probably the greatest demonstration of the country being emotionally invested in a TV character since “Lucy Ricardo” gave birth to her son 14 years earlier.
As you no doubt remember, “The Fugitive” was the televisions series that followed the exploits of Dr. Richard Kimble (played by David Janssen), a man unjustly accused and convicted of murdering his wife, who escapes custody from the law as the result of a train wreck on his way to death row. For the next four seasons, which included 120 one-hour episodes, Kimble remained on the run, hoping to clear his name before he is recaptured. “The Fugitive” was the brainchild of Roy Huggins, a writer and producer whose earlier credits included “Maverick” and “77 Sunset Strip.” Although most people assumed that Huggins inspiration for Dr. Kimble was Sam Sheppard, a doctor accused of killing his wife in the 1950’s, Huggins denied this. It’s not hard to believe Huggins, as Western culture as filled with stories of innocent men being condemned to prison or death for crimes committed either by others or not committed at all. Alexander Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo,” is an early example, while Alfred Hitchcock’s career as a great film director includes several movies (“North by Northwest,” “The 39 Steps,” and “Saboteur”) where common men unwittingly get caught up in nefarious activity. Possibly the best comparison to “The Fugitive” is Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” where the main character, “Jean Valjean” is also a fugitive from justice, and is forced to stay on the run, hiding behind many aliases, trying to avoid being apprehended by “Javert,” a police inspector who remains in constant pursuit.
“The Fugitive” made its network debut at 10pm, Tuesday, September 17, 1963. Episode 1, titled “Fear in a Desert City,” opens with Dr. Kimble (Janssen) handcuffed to Lt. Phillip Gerard (Barry Morse), riding on the train that would deliver him to death row. The narration provided by William Conrad explains it best. “Name: Dr. Richard Kimble. Profession: Doctor of medicine. Destination: Death row, state prison. Richard Kimble has been tried and convicted for the murder of his wife. But laws are made by men and carried out by men, and men are not imperfect. Richard Kimble is innocent. Proved guilty. What Richard Kimble could not prove was that moments before discovering his wife’s body, he encountered a man running from the vicinity of his home. A man with one arm. A man who has not yet been found. Richard Kimble ponders his fate as he looks at the world for the last time, and sees only darkness. But in that darkness, fate plays a huge hand.” That “huge hand” was the train wreck that gave Kimble the freedom to roam the countryside, hoping to catch up with the one-armed man, all the while looking over his shoulder for the police lieutenant obsessed with his capture.
Over the course of the first season, viewers learned more details of the events the occurred the night of Helen Kimble’s death. It seemed that Dr. Kimble and his wife had argued earlier in the evening, their shouting overheard by neighbors. Kimble drove off in his car, attempting to cool off, almost running over the one-armed man who was fleeing from Kimble’s home. It was only after finding his wife dead that Dr. Kimble realized that the one-armed man was leaving a crime scene, but by then it was too late to quickly round him up. But although the premise of “The Fugitive,” was that of a man on the run, the program did not always focus on Kimble’s situation…Usually, while in in a strange town, and using a fake name, Dr. Kimble would come across a wide variety of folks with problems of their own, only to be helped by the man who always seemed much too bright to be working at whatever lowly occupation he managed to find that week. But Kimble’s successes were always short lived, as the looming shadow of Lt. Gerrard would force him to move on.
As early as the first season, the schoolyard and neighborhood rumor mills were filled with “reliable” information that “The Fugitive” as a series, was ending and that Richard Kimble’s situation would be resolved in a satisfactory manner. One of my classmates assured me he knew this because, according to his cousin in Nevada, viewers in Las Vegas were several episodes ahead of us. The most common story was that Lt. Gerrard himself would be proven to be the actual murder, but of course, “The Fugitive” stayed on the air for three more seasons. That “cousin in Nevada” provided countless fake news even beyond that.
By Season Two, “The Fugitive” was a huge hit, reaching #5 in the 1964-65 Nielson Ratings. “The Fugitive’s” popularity led to several other programs adopting the formula of an unsolved issue being a show’s main premise. “A Man Called Shenandoah,” “The Guns of Will Sonnet,” and “Coronet Blue” went this route, but it was NBC’s “Branded” that came closest to being a blatant rip-off. Starring Chuck Connors, “Branded” was the story of “Jason McCord,” a U.S. Army captain who is charged with cowardice during a battle with Apaches, and is discharged from the military. Like Richard Kimble, McCord drifts from town to town, hoping his name will eventually be cleared. At least “Branded” never incorporated a one-armed Indian into its storyline.
It was during the 1966-67 television season that ABC announced that “The Fugitive’s” fourth season would be its last. By this time, the show had sunk to #50 in the Nielson rankings, as viewers began to tire of the repetitive nature of the storylines. In an unprecedented move, “The Fugitive” would end its weekly run on April 11, and would return after a fourth month hiatus on August 22, 1967 with the first of a two-episode arc that promised to provide closure for the show.
“The Judgement” parts 1 and 2 aired on consecutive weeks, August 22 and 29. “Fred Johnson,” an alias used by the one-armed man, is arrested after a fight in a Los Angeles strip bar. Learning this, Richard Kimble heads to the West Coast hoping to catch up to him…But Lt. Gerrard also goes to L.A., figuring Kimble would be there in pursuit of “Johnson.” Gerrard finally succeeds in capturing Kimble, but not before questioning “Johnson,” and realizing that Kimble might have been telling the truth all along. Viewers also learn that Helen Kimble’s murder had an eye-witness in the form of a neighbor who kept silent, as his testimony would reveal that he was too frightened to help Helen while being strangled to death by the one-armed man. This information sends Gerrard and Kimble in joint pursuit of “Fred Johnson.” The chase ends at and amusement park, where “Johnson” shoots Gerrard in the leg. At that point, Gerrard tosses Kimble his gun. During the final confrontation on a carnival tower, the one-arm man manages to get Gerrard’s pistol, but is shot dead by Lt. Gerrard’s excellent rifle shot. With the former neighbor now willing to testify on Kimble’s behalf, it’s all over, except for narrator William Conrad’s final voiceover, “Tuesday, September 5…The day the running stopped.”
Despite its low place in the Nielson ratings, the final episode of “The Fugitive” was the most watched series episode up to that time. An estimated 78 million viewers tuned in, demonstrating that although no longer as popular as a weekly entity, much of the country still cared about the fate of Dr. Richard Kimble. “The Fugitive’s” finale numbers have only been surpassed by those of “Roots,” “Cheers,” and “M*A*S*H.”
For me, the conclusion of “The Fugitive” coincided with a pivotal moment in my life. I was about to embark on a four-year run of my own at Capuchino High School. After a few weeks of being a lowly freshman, Richard Kimble’s plight seemed trivial.
Notes: “Fred Johnson,” the one-armed man was played by Bill Raisch, who lost his arm in WWII. Raisch was originally a dancer with the Ziegfeld Follies. “Helen Kimble” was portrayed by Diane Brewster, best remembered as “Miss Canfield,” “Beaver Cleaver’s” teacher during the first season of “Leave it to Beaver.”