Dr. Richard Kimble is bound for the death house—not to care for prisoners but to await execution for his wife’s murder.
He’s a convict who has exhausted all appeals. He’s also an innocent victim of blind justice.
But as the train hurtles him toward his destiny, fate intervenes. A switch is missed, the train derails and Kimble is free. Free “to hide in lonely desperation. To change his identity. To toil at many jobs.” Free “to search for a one-armed man he saw leave the scene of the crime.” Free “to run before the relentless pursuit of the police lieutenant obsessed with his capture.”
Through four prime-time seasons (1963-67), Dr. Kimble (played by David Janssen) became one of the most famous characters in TV history: “The Fugitive.” When it aired 40 years ago Wednesday, the final episode—featuring Kimble’s final confrontation with the one-armed man—became the highest-rated TV episode in history. (Even today, only the final episode of “M*A*S*H” and the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of “Dallas” rank higher among series episodes.)
I discovered “The Fugitive” in reruns in the early 1990s. I watched it every day, taped every episode. When those videocassettes faded, I bought bootleg DVDs of the program from Canada. When Paramount Home Entertainment began releasing restored versions of the program on DVD this month, I was beyond thrilled.
You don’t need me to tell you “The Fugitive” was a great show, graced with fine writing, wonderful acting, tension-filled scripts and William Conrad’s stentorian narrations opening and closing each episode. TV Guide hailed it as “the best TV drama of the 1960s.” The writer Stephen King deemed it “absolutely the best series done on American television.”
It’s also the most daring and subversive network series ever broadcast.
“Daring” is a relative term in TV land, where the primary mission is offering Americans escape from the real world. In 1967, for example, when hippies celebrated the summer of love, race riots burned and U.S. soldiers fought in Vietnam, the top three programs were “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Lucy Show” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”
Even “All in the Family” was behind the cultural curve. The show was celebrated for depicting the tension between middle America (represented by Archie Bunker) and the counterculture (embodied by his son-in-law, Michael Stivic), but this battle had been raging for years by the time “All in the Family” premiered in 1971.
“The Fugitive,” on the other hand, pushed the envelope as it beamed a true counterculture message into the homes of rock-ribbed Americans. Kimble’s travails articulated the broad discontent, the mistrust of authority and the concern for the downtrodden that were blossoming in the 1960s.
Like the heroes of Jack Kerouac’s seminal Beat generation novel, Kimble lived “on the road.” The show’s first episode was set in Tucson, Ariz. The next week found him in the Missouri hills. Then it was on to West Virginia, California, New Mexico, Alaska. Through these travels he embodied a desire for freedom and adventure at odds with the safe comfort of suburban life spreading across post-war America.
The most mobile man in a famously mobile society, Kimble was also the king of reinvention in the land of reinvention: Each stop brought a different name and a different job. One week he was James Lincoln, bartender; then Jim Fowler, handyman; then Al Fleming, gas station attendant.
Kimble, of course, did not seek this liberty. He had been forced to drop out of mainstream society. He wanted to clear his name and settle back into the bourgeois life he had known in Stafford, Ind. But for viewers, the rambling life of this proto-hippie seemed intensely exciting.
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?
These characters’ actions stand in stark contrast with those of the program’s symbol of unquestioning authority, police Lt. Philip Gerard (played with cool precision by Barry Morse). Long before Vietnam and Watergate led many Americans to question their leaders, Gerard was a potent symbol of the fallibility of the state and the dangers of blind loyalty. A Javert-like figure obsessed with Kimble’s capture, he dismisses his lingering doubts about Kimble’s guilt in the name of duty. “Let others debate and conclude,” he says in the first episode. “I (am) just an instrument of the law.”
The people Kimble encounters tend to sympathize with the troubled hero because they are also outsiders: Americans marginalized by society, not because of what they have allegedly done but because of who they are.
The first episode features a woman and her son trying to flee an abusive husband. In other shows, Kimble is aided by—and aids, often at the risk of his life—migrant workers, a black man struggling against racism, people suffering from mental disturbances and a host of others preyed upon by the strong because of their weaknesses.
Such empathy was just taking hold in America, as blacks, women and other marginalized groups began pushing for equality. Through Dr. Richard Kimble, viewers from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., were not given a refuge from reality but a glimpse of the nation’s future.
By combining compelling stories with a progressive sensibility, “The Fugitive” shows us how smart a TV show can be—and reminds us of how dumb and safe most of them are.
ABOUT THE WRITER
J. Peder Zane is a columnist for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer.