Forty years after its original airing on ABC, the finale of “The Fugitive” remains the third highest-rated single episode of any network prime-time series in history.
Finally, the memorable show has arrived on DVD this week with “The Fugutive: Season One, Volume One” (Paramount, $38.99), a four-disc, 15 episode set.
“The Fugitive’s” premise of a man fleeing from the arm of the law is as old as Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel “Les Miserables.” In this case it is Dr. Richard Kimble, a man wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, who is being escorted by rail to be executed but gains freedom after the train derails.
During its four-season run (1963-67), the series kept viewers in suspense as Kimble criss-crossed the country in hopes of proving his innocence. He could only do that by finding the one-armed man he saw running from his house the night of the murder. Hotly in pursuit of Kimble is Lt. Philip Gerard, the man who was carrying the doctor to the death house when he escaped.
David Janssen’s understated approach is perfect for his role of Kimble, a man constantly on his guard and looking over his shoulder while trying to blend into the crowd. Barry Morse’s Gerard is a near-sinister figure as he relentlessly stays on the trail of Kimble.
Gerard’s obsession with Kimble is never more evident than in one episode in which he has promised to take his young son fishing. But when he gets a tip that Kimble might be hiding out in a particular town, Gerard ditches the fishing trip and catches a plane in hopes of finally cornering Kimble.
Gerard actually captures Kimble in episode 11, “Nightmare at Northoak,” after the fugitive receives publicity for saving the lives of some children. With help from the town’s grateful citizens, Kimble manages to again escape Gerard’s clutches.
During his search for the one-armed man, Kimble takes a variety of odd jobs as he makes his way across America. Sometimes he is forced to risk blowing his cover. In “Smoke Screen,” he takes a job as a farm hand but is compelled to assist a female worked who goes into labor. The other workers quickly realize Kimble is no ordinary man.
Episode 14, “The Girl from Little Egypt,” tells in flashback the story of how Kimble came to be blamed for his wife’s murder and the trial that followed.
“The Fugitive” is a first-rate series that manages to keep viewers on edge even though they know Kimble will somehow find a way to continue his flight. Adding an extra effect to the film noir-like atmosphere is the dramatic voiceover narration of actor William Conrad, who played Marshal Matt Dillon on radio and later starred in his own TV series “Cannon” and “Jake and the Fatman.”
“The Fugitive” inspired the 1993 movie starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones and also a short-lived 2000 updated version of the TV series.