That’s All, Folks: After 4 Seasons of Escapes and Fistfights, The Fugitive Finally Stopped RunningPhoto Courtesy of ABC TV Features
Most scripted television shows end in cancellation, so there’s something special about the ones that get the chance to go out on their own terms. This year, Ken Lowe is revisiting some of the most influential TV shows that made it to an officially planned final episode. That’s All, Folks is a look back at television’s most unforgettable series finales.
It’s interesting to think of what a show like The Fugitive would look like today, 60 years after the original debuted. Peacock’s Poker Face is reasonably close (a desperate fugitive fleeing from a dogged and humorless pursuer, encountering adventures at every bump in the road), but it’s nowhere near the same tone. Pitching the show these days, I imagine a showrunner trying to cast a sharp and charismatic leading man playing a hypercompetent doctor,as the writers room engineers a slow-burn multi-season plot with twists and turns and conspiracies.
It would probably feature overarching plots and recurring characters, lots of reveals of things that were planned from the earliest days of the series: You could probably feel the actors’ choices in every scene.
The Fugitive was not really that kind of show.
David Janssen’s Dr. Richard Kimble is the show’s protagonist, but it really can’t be said that he’s a hero. It’s hard to compare him to any other main character in any other kind of drama or action show like this, which features chases and gunfights and punching and so, so much smoking. Janssen plays him as a quiet man, eyes perpetually downcast, voice a resigned rasp. He’s always wearing jackets and coats that seem like they’re engulfing him. He is a man in fear and desperation, hunted by the authorities, whose weakness is nothing more complicated than getting spotted by any random beat cop.
You probably know the story (since you probably saw the 1993 movie with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones). Kimble has been wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife, but escapes during a train derailment. He knows he’s innocent, and believes that a one-armed man he saw leaving his home could be his wife’s true killer. He’s pursued by the relentless Lieutenant Gerard (Barry Morse, playing a thoughtful, no-nonsense, motivated lawman who also happens to be a total prick most of the time). The stakes are more than just Kimble’s reputation: If caught, his sentence is to pay the ultimate price.
Through it all, Kimble is not brave, not dynamic, not an AmeriCAN, but an AmeriCAN’T. There are episodes where Kimble has next to no personal agency: In “Middle of a Heat Wave,” an episode in the show’s third season, he becomes falsely accused of a girlfriend’s sexual assault after breaking up with her (due to the whole being-a-drifter-fugitive-from-justice thing). He’s up against a ticking clock: The local sheriff will discover that he’s a fugitive at any moment, and his girlfriend’s overprotective and vindictive sister is determined to hang the crime on him. The real criminal is the sister’s husband, but Kimble has absolutely nothing to do with finding this out. He spends the episode hiding, running, sweating through several layers of mid-century suit, and finally escaping the law once the other players in the story take pity on his plight. The episode’s epilogue, in which the character’s all resolve their simmering conflict with one another, doesn’t even include Kimble in the room. He was entirely incidental to, and a victim of, their lying, manipulating family drama.
This is, amazingly, not a bug of the show but an apparent feature of it. The Fugitive was one of the most popular shows on TV in its first season, and there’s been a lot of brow-furrowing over just exactly why. Kimble is anti-heroic in the sense that he isn’t a conventional hero, but what’s interesting is that it’s not in the easy, lazy way that a lot of characters are anti-heroes—Kimble isn’t out here torturing his enemies or discarding women. He’s anti-heroic in the sense that he seems powerless and overwhelmed, and you’re supposed to sympathize and identify with him more than you’re supposed to really want to be him. Something about that powerlessness spoke to audiences in the mid-1960s, when people were back from foreign wars and beginning to come to grips with a government that they knew was lying to them, a police force growing in power and brutality, and an industrialized United States full of the kind of people left behind in the kind of jobs Kimble toils in specifically because nobody cares about who tends their bar or mixes their cement.
The one constant throughout the show’s town-of-the-week plots is Kimble being hassled by the fuzz, and under the all-seeing eye of authority. In the show’s pilot, Kimble takes up a crappy job at a cheap bar and has about five seconds to get his clip-on bow tie situated before encountering an abusive, obsessive husband who is stalking his wife, the bar’s timid piano player. Kimble takes pity on and tries to protect the woman in distress before finding out that her husband is a rich and powerful local politician.
Violent toward and suspicious of his wife, the politician has driven her away, and bribed local police to hassle Kimble. The detectives who manhandle and threaten Kimble are tools of the petty and rich, and it doesn’t matter to them at all that the politician is completely unhinged (even with them). In one scene, they prattle on with the politician, Kimble’s wanted poster unnoticed in the background. The message is pretty clear: They don’t give a shit about solving an actual crime, because they’re too busy helping a violent patriarch exert authority and control over an abused wife he treats like property.
(In another episode, when Kimble is getting fingerprinted by cops who aren’t aware of his past and don’t even suspect him of anything, the officer booking him off-handedly reassures him that the records will probably just come back to say that he “drove drunk or beat his wife.” You know, small stuff.)
It would be satisfying if Kimble clobbered this asshole at the end of the pilot, but nah: Kimble is about to get the woman and her son onto a cross-country bus when her deranged husband waves a gun around and in a fit of pique, fires on local police who shoot him full of holes. Kimble peaces out in the ensuing confusion.
That’s basically the thesis statement on the show: There’s no catharsis for our hero, who is not clever or resolute. He’s just not willing to give up. It’s all Kimble’s got.
By the end of its relatively short run, The Fugitive had dipped significantly in popularity, and Janssen was reportedly worn down by the significant demands of the role: Jacqueline Scott, who played the recurring role (including in the finale) of Kimble’s sister, said the long hours of the production had taken their toll on him. More than that, ABC network higher-ups reportedly weren’t even convinced the show ever needed a conclusion, and according to the logic of the time, thought having one would hurt the show in syndication. But people had to know and deserved to know, said Leonard Goldberg, an ABC exec at the time: A friend asked him what was going to happen and who killed Kimble’s wife? Were they going to catch him?
If you, like me, spent the years between 2004 and 2017 wistfully wondering whether or not Samurai Jack ever did, in fact, get back to the past, you probably sympathize with Goldberg’s friend. I think there’s an argument to be made that unless a long-running series has an ending, it can’t ever be as meaningful to us. At some point, we want to know that these trials and tribulations meant something. An ending, when it’s earned and satisfying, is a powerful thing. (My wife, whose exposure to Samurai Jack prior to seeing the long-awaited finale consisted solely of patiently watching a handful of episodes to humor me, started crying when Jack finally fell into that two-tone portal to destiny at the end of Season 5.)
And so, ABC set about giving people what they wanted. “The Judgment” was a two-part finale, full of twists and cliffhangers. In the first episode, Kimble discovers that the one-armed man (Bill Raisch) has been arrested in a barroom brawl. In what has to be a nod to the series’ origins and a statement on the futility of Kimble’s quest, he begins the episode in Tucson, which is the very town where the pilot transpired. The show is explicit about how long he’s been on the lam, repeatedly saying that he’s been running for four years. He’s been chased around so much, it seems, that he’s run out of towns to cycle through and is back where he started.
Kimble doesn’t know that the news of the one-armed man’s arrest is another clever trap laid by Gerard. But as it happens, Gerard is recognized by a courtroom stenographer, Jean (Diane Baker, whose face you’ve seen in a bunch of notable character actor roles) who knows Kimble’s family and tips him off in time. Jean becomes Kimble’s conspirator and love interest as she hides him from Gerard and helps him tail the one-armed man, who is bailed out by a mysterious benefactor before escaping. The one-armed man swears that he didn’t kill Kimble’s wife, but that he saw who did.
It was a hell of a cliffhanger for the end of the first episode, and it ensured that even more people tuned in for the finale the following week. It was, for a time, the most-watched episode on television, though it’s since been handily eclipsed. The show has one more fakeout twist, but it’s not worth going too deeply into: The one-armed man really did kill Kimble’s wife, and he and Kimble finally confront one another in a foot chase/gunfight/brawl to the finish. “September 5,” intones the show’s narrator, when it’s all over and we’re assured Kimble is done looking over his shoulder, “the day the running stopped.”
People were riveted: About 72% of television watchers who were tuned in at that time were watching The Fugitive, a figure that seems to indicate even people who weren’t regular watchers of the show were intrigued. It was a powerful statement on just how invested people got in the show, and really, how couldn’t they: It asked a burning question in its very premise. It would have been cheap not to answer it.
And really, it would have retroactively made Kimble’s wanderings even more unbearably depressing. After dragging himself through so much desperation and fear, it would have been a rotten thing indeed not to get to see him, just once, breathe free.
Join us next month, when That’s All, Folks explores the center-point of TV crossovers, the finale of St. Elsewhere.
Kenneth Lowe thinks of the day he might find the man with one arm….
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