The chase ended on Aug. 29, 1967, with the final episode of ABC’s The Fugitive, but for the audiences who had kept it running for four white-knuckled seasons, the obsession was far from over. The finale of the show about a convicted killer trying to prove his innocence while dodging the cops pulled 30 million viewers and remained the highest-rated episode ever for a TV series until 1980, when 83 million people tuned in to see who shot Dallas‘ J.R. The Fugitive became pop legend, and the man playing its psychically abused hero went down in TV history as a true original: a former B-movie actor named David Janssen who had bad posture, a twisted smile, and eyes that said they’d seen more than any mere TV-watcher ever would.
The role proved tailor-made for Janssen. Dr. Richard Kimble was an innocent man sentenced to death for murdering his wife; after escaping from police while en route to his execution, Kimble set out to find the real murderer, an elusive one-armed man. Yet despite being two steps behind the killer and one ahead of the law, Kimble always found time to help people down on their luck. Janssen, fresh from the series Richard Diamond, Private Detective and 32 when The Fugitive started, made Kimble both victim and Everyman. The role earned him $4.5 million a year and a retinue of caretakers, one always delegated to keeping him sober.
That was no easy assignment. Janssen had a reputation as a hard-drinking lady-killer with a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit. One of Hollywood’s biggest spenders, he threw parties that grew increasingly lavish over the years, with guests such as Rod Stewart and Alice Cooper. Born in Nebraska to a former Ziegfeld girl whom he said abandoned him, Janssen had appeared in over 40 unmemorable films starting at age 15. After The Fugitive he had another hit with the detective series Harry O.
Janssen never did stop carousing. He died at 48 of a heart attack, and at his funeral Richard Lang, one of The Fugitive‘s directors, said, ”He was a good man and a bad boy. God, was he fun.”
But that wasn’t the end, either. Thirteen years later, 26 years after the show, Harrison Ford’s movie re-creation is proving that Janssen’s grand fugitive was never dead; he was just in hiding.