Dr. Johnson had Boswell. John F. Kennedy had Arthur Schlesinger. And the late David Janssen has his mother, Berniece Janssen, high priestess of a growing Fugitive cult as Janssen’s 1963-67 TV series undergoes a virtually Brady Bunch-ian renaissance.
The Fugitive movie is just the beginning: There’s also a new book, The Fugitive Recaptured (Pomegranate Press), Fugitive episodes twice daily on A&E, three fan clubs, and an imminent second annual Fugitive convention. Through it all, the former Zeigfeld showgirl remains the stage mother she was when she entered 6-month-old David in Sears’ Prettiest Baby contest (he won). Now 82, Berniece carries her son’s torch on talk shows and through articles for fan newsletters.
All this despite a rancorous relationship with Janssen’s widow and being left out of David’s will. ”Rag magazines have called me a domineering mother and said that I put David in an orphanage,” says Berniece, at home in Tarzana, Calif. ”They make up these stories that David and I didn’t get along.”
She blames the rumors on Dani, Janssen’s second wife, who told the press in 1980 that Berniece left David in an orphanage for three years (Dani could not be reached for comment). Berniece says that he lived in the Kiwanis-sponsored McKinley Home for Boys, in San Dimas, Calif., for one year because she was hospitalized for appendicitis and was also trying to move from her building, which didn’t allow children. Author Mel Proctor, who spoke to the women for his upcoming Fugitive book, says both are a bit mistaken: ”He lived there the better part of two years and came home on Sundays.”
David himself said at age 47, ”Like a lot of mothers, she wants to live vicariously through her children, but it won’t work.” It has, though: Berniece not only appeared on The Fugitive and on Janssen’s later series, O’Hara, U.S. Treasury and Harry-O, she’s in the new movie, too. In the courtroom scene, a gray-haired woman sits and watches the proceedings. That’s Berniece.