August 22, 1967 marked an epoch in television history when the TV series The Fugitive prepared to close out its four-year run with a two-part finale titled, “The Judgment”. While today’s TV viewers are used to season finales (including mid-season finales) and series finales, the concept of a series closing out with a definitive episode was new, but as the ratings proved, successful. It would achieve the highest ratings of any TV show at the time, and while it bears noting the episodes aired in the summer when there wasn’t the usual competition, it was still an achievement that held up for over a decade, finally surpassed by the Dallas episode “Who Done It” (which answered the tantalizing questions, “Who Shot J.R.?”). It’s an achievement and an anniversary worthy of celebration, even fifty years later.
The premise of The Fugitive was simple, but powerful. Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen) was falsely convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to death. His only defense was he saw a one-armed man leaving the area when he returned home to find his dead wife. Kimble escaped due to a train accident and went on the run, hoping to somehow find the one-armed man. Each week, he traveled from town to town, dealing with various problems, all the while eluding Lieutenant Phillip Gerard (Barry Morse), a cop obsessed with getting the man who escaped from his custody.
Lt. Gerard's pursuit of Kimble was an obsession drove some fans to send actor Barry Morse hate mail.
American actor William Conrad narrated the show’s opening and closing segments as well as The Fugitive’s title sequence. The title sequence would change, but by season two had settled into the now famous opening:
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.
The beauty of the show was it afforded unlimited storylines (other than Dr. Kimble vindicating himself). Kimble had to find work (often menial) to survive, usually encountering people with problems of their own. Kimble inevitably found himself helping people, even though he was constantly at risk for exposure of his true identity. Occasionally, he found clues to the one-armed man, but the suspected killer remained an elusive figure for the first three seasons, rarely appearing. With Kimble’s resources virtually nonexistent, it made sense it would be difficult to find someone while simultaneously fleeing the police.
The One-Armed Man proved elusive throughout the series, appearing in less than a handful of episodes the first three seasons.
By the end of season three, David Jansen was exhausted with the role. Although he was offered half a million dollars to shoot a fifth season, he passed. His role was physically and mentally draining. He was the show’s only star, appearing in most of the show and working a physically demanding part, exacerbated by a bad knee. The show’s long hours and frequent night shoots took their toll and Janssen’s role shouldering the show was akin to Atlas.
The Fugitive ran 120 episodes over four seasons and in hindsight, it ended on a creative high note. The fourth season was noticeable for being shot in color, but also for a decline in quality. It’s difficult to recall a television show that was consistently so good. And to be fair, the fourth season did drop in quality, but The Fugitive’s worst episodes were still better than most TV series’ best. The Fugitive is a show that did not jump the proverbial shark.
With the show now in its final season, executive producer Quinn Martin decided to complete the story of Dr. Richard Kimble. Although Martin felt ending the series with a conclusive finale might hurt its marketability in syndication, he made the unprecedented move of wrapping up the show (Series creator Roy Huggins pitched the show with the understanding it would end with Kimble clearing his name). While it is often cited as the first American TV show to have a series finale, several finales preceded it including the last episode of The Howdy Doody Show ("Clarabell's Big Surprise"), Leave It to Beaver ("Family Scrapbook"), and Route 66 (.""Where There's a Will, There's a Way: Parts 1 & 2"). Nonetheless, The Fugitive's finale was much anticipated as the audience would finally get an answer to the mystery of who killed Richard Kimble’s wife and whether Kimble would finally be free.
A typically reserved Lt. Gerard nearly snaps while interrogating Fred Johnson aka "The One-Armed Man."
The series finale would air in two parts and fans would have to wait until August for these two anticipated episodes. On August 19, 1967, “The Judgment: Part One” aired, revealing that Kimble’s elusive quarry Fred Johnson (aka “The One-Armed Man”) had been arrested by the Los Angeles police. Kimble’s pursuer Lt. Gerard realized this was a chance to finally trap Kimble as he knew Kimble pursued Fred Johnson relentlessly (although Gerard believed Kimble had deluded himself into blaming The One-Armed Man for his wife’s murder). Gerard interrogates The One-Armed Man who reveals he didn’t murder Helen Kimble, but was there when it happened and saw who killed her. Kimble learns of the One-Armed-Man’s arrest and raced to Los Angeles, only to discover his target has been bailed out by none other than Kimble’s brother-in-law Leonard Taft. Kimble is about to return home to Stafford, Indiana when Gerard finally catches up with him, arresting him and preparing to take Kimble back to Indiana where he faces execution.
The anticipation for the concluding episode was phenomenal. Fans wondered, how Dr. Kimble’s brother-in-law was involved in the affair, and if The One-Armed Man’s story was true, who murdered Helen Kimble? It would be a long seven days until the concluding episode with Fugitive fans wondering who the killer was. Join us next time as we look at part two of “The Day the Running Stopped.”
Proctor, Mel. The Official Fan's Guide to the Fugitive. Longmeadow Pr; 1st Longmeadow Press ed edition, 1994.
Robertson, Ed. The Fugitive Recaptured: The 30th Anniversary Companion to a Television Classic. Pomegranate Press, Ltd.; Tradepaper ed. Edition, 1993.
“The Judgment: Part One.” The Fugitive: The Complete Series. written by George Eckstein and Michael Zagor, directed by Don Medford, Paramount, 2015.
“The Judgment: Part Two.” The Fugitive: The Complete Series. written by George Eckstein and Michael Zagor, directed by Don Medford, Paramount, 2015.