On the Run

Our colleague Jim MacQuarrie is fond of saying, “imitation is the sincerest form of television.”

Nowhere is that more true than in the case of The Fugitive. The show starring David Janssen as the tormented Dr. Richard Kimble, hunted for a murder he didn’t commit, was a huge success, airing from 1963 to 1967.

It was one of the first– maybe THE first– shows on television to get a real ending, wherein the hero’s quest is finally concluded. Spoiler– Kimble actually got the one-armed man and proved himself innocent.

Interestingly, that finale almost didn’t happen. Here’s Leonard Goldberg with that story.

Goldnerg got the last laugh. That two-part finale, originally aired in 1967, remains to this day the third-highest rated television show ever broadcast. The show also spawned a big-screen remake with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, and the follow-up U.S. Marshals.

Most of you all know this already, I’m sure. Some of you might even remember the 2000 TV reboot with Tim Daly and Mykeleti Williamson.

I thought the reboot was really good, myself; the stunt work was incredible and the writers played fair, tackling the challenges of a present-day version of the story head-on. The truth is that it would be the hell of a lot harder to be Richard Kimble today than it was in 1963. This is the age of cameras everywhere: traffic cams, cell phones, internet viral videos. My recollection is that even so, the 2000 Fugitive made it work. But it only went one season and ended with an unresolved cliffhanger. I guess America decided it already knew the story and didn’t bother, though I recall the show brought in some interesting changes on the idea.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The formula has become a TV perennial. A hero constantly on the move, chasing a person or a thing, while at the same time being chased by another person or an organization. Generally pitched as, “It’s The Fugitive, but with…”

“…a guy who changes into a monster!” (The Incredible Hulk.)

“….a martial arts master in the old west!” (Kung Fu.)

“…an alien and his human son!” (Starman.)

The Starman-to-Fugitive revision was one that happened fairly often when a hit movie was retooled into a TV show. Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run did it as well.

I imagine, if you are hanging out here at the Junk Shop, you probably know about all those too. However, recently Julie and I came across a DVD set of one of the more obscure versions of the idea– Coronet Blue.

The fun of the show is the mystery at its core– the amnesiac hero has no idea who he is or why people are trying to murder him. Creator Larry Cohen is quite candid in interviews about what the solution was, but if you have any interest in the show, don’t look it up on Wikipedia until you have a chance to see an episode or two. We like it better than Cohen did, I think; he wanted more of a spy/thriller vibe to it, and that’s a valid critique, but the episodes that exist are certainly very entertaining, and I’m pleased to have it in the library.

But it did get me wondering exactly how many times TV producers have mined The Fugitive‘s premise for a new show.

I knew there was The Immortal with Christopher George.

And The Invaders, also created by Larry Cohen, has a lot of The Fugitive in it. That’s another one Julie and I found on DVD a while back and just purely enjoyed the hell out of. I had forgotten the shows but I still knew the opening credits by heart.

One of my favorite thefts of the concept was Robert Urich in The Lazarus Man. Pretty much the same as Coronet Blue, an amnesiac hero who has no idea why people are trying to kill him, but set in the old west.

Those, I already knew about. But when I went looking, I found so… many… more. Most of them only ran one season or less, but that never stopped producers from returning to the well.

Easily the most blatant rip-off was 1984’s Hot Pursuit. This is The Fugitive, but with a married couple on the run instead of just one guy.

I was amused to see that TV Guide was pretty blasé about the whole ripping-off-The-Fugitive thing. “Yeah, sure they are, but c’mon, it could be good!”

Who knows? Maybe it was. The pilot’s up on YouTube and we might look into it. It was… well, ‘created by’ is a little strong, but let’s say it originated with Kenneth Johnson, who also did The Bionic Woman, the TV version of Alien Nation, and V. And of course, he adapted the Hulk from the comics to the Fugitive-derived Bixby version, so it’s familiar territory for him.

There was also The Phoenix with Judson Scott, which was another Fugitive-but-he’s-an-alien thing.

I saw the pilot when it aired in 1982 and it is impossible to overstate how truly awful it was. It incorporated every tired SF cliche of the time, including the Chariots of the Gods ancient astronauts trope, and I think the Bermuda Triangle was invoked as well. I am still completely baffled that it went to series. Even seeing it stoned out of my mind, which was how I spent the early 1980s, I nevertheless thought it was horribly, irredeemably bad. Reviewing the stuff up on YouTube before writing this column has not changed my opinion. Though I did forgive Judson Scott because he was good in Wrath of Khan.

But The Phoenix wasn’t even the weirdest take on the idea. I think that has to go to Hanna-Barbera’s New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a 1968 offering where Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher are on the run from a murderous Injun Joe and fall into a dimensional portal where they encounter all sorts of weirdness, a different dimension every episode. Even odder, Tom, Huck, Becky, and Injun Joe were all live-action, but everything else was animated.

But a close runner-up has got to be 1977’s Run Joe Run, which was The Fugitive, except with a German Shepherd.

No, really.

There’s also 1987’s Werewolf, which was basically the same as the Bixby Hulk except it’s, y’know, a werewolf.

I’m sure I’m missing some. Even ruling out shows that only used part of the formula (sometimes the hero was on the move, like Ben Gazzara in Run For Your Life or Michael Parks in Then Came Bronson, but strictly for personal reasons; there was no relentless pursuer) I am certain there are even more obscure thefts of the idea out there. I daresay there are whole series of adventure paperbacks and whatnot, and I think the theme may have shown up a time or two in the comics– Luke Cage started out as a Fugitive riff, and of course the Hulk went there as well, though the only time the comic was in full-on Fugitive territory was when the TV show was airing, which creates a sort of weird metatextual recursive loop.

But this is long enough as it is. If you folks out there think of anything else, sound off in the comments. For now, I think Julie and I are going to finish up Coronet Blue.

Back next week with something cool.

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18 Comments

  1. BMartin

    Nowhere Man (1995) would be a fit here. Haven’t seen it since the original airing, but my recollection was it was good. In Australia it was shown back to back with either x-files or Millenium… or millenium replaced it im not sure now. It was a conspiracy theme night thing i guess.

    1. Oh, my God, I can’t believe I forgot Bruce Greenwood in Nowhere Man. I watched it when it originally aired and loved it. Julie got me the DVD set as a gift a few years ago. It actually got to sort of conclude, or at least partially resolve, the mystery photo that Thomas Veil was trying to figure out. Fun fact: It was shot in Portland, Oregon where I grew up and we used to enjoy spotting familiar locales.

      Pilot’s up on YouTube here. Recommended.

  2. I’d dispute Luke Cage as fitting the formula: the wandering is an essential part for me, and he stayed fixed in Harlem. Likewise the Coronet Blue protagonist stayed at his base in Greenwich Village, to the point the bad guys could easily have whacked him if they’d wanted to (despite which I really like the show).
    The Visitor with John Corbett was one example. And from writing a book about TV specfic films (Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan) I know a few more:
    Annihilator, a pilot with Mark Lindsay Chapman trying to smoke out an alien conspiracy while on the run from them.
    Clone Master. Protagonist’s clones hide from the sinister government agent hunting them so he can’t rip the secret of cloning from their bodies.
    Dr. Franken was a dull pilot that would have had a Frankenstein-style composite revenant wandering the country and connecting with people in his revenant memories.
    The Gifted One, with a half-ET protagonist looking for his human mother.
    The Stranger had Glenn Corbett as an astronaut on the run from the dystopian government on Counter-Earth
    Tomorrow Man (one of several films by that title) has Julian Sands coming from the future to change his history, hunted by a government agent who wants to exploit his knowledge.
    Nowhere Man started great, but I found it slow, indulgent and lazy after that.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    I was all set to bring up Run, Joe Run, until I saw you mention it.

    Grizzly Adams starts out as the Fugitive, as he goes on the run, after being falsely accused of a crime; but, the series tended to forget about that, most of the time.

    Otherworld was another sci-fi Fugitive, with a family. They go through a dimensional gate and end up in a parallel world, with a fascist government. They end up on the run, from the authorities.

  4. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, the Hulk and Saturday morning’s Run, Joe, Run were the first ones that came to mind.
    However, immediately after that I remembered one that seems to have slipped everyone’s mind (perhaps deliberately): Renegade, with the one-and-only Lorenzo Lamas! People, you’re slipping…

    Otherwise, I remember watching the Phoenix pilot movie and really wanting to like it, but didn’t. I don’t think I ever watched any episodes of the very short-lived series. However, when watching Wrath of Khan, I remember thinking, “Hey, that’s the Phoenix guy!”

  5. Ooh, I liked The Immortal when they showed it one summer on Sci-Fi in the ’90s.

    But a big one that fits the formula is one of my favorite shows, The Pretender, where Jarod is a genius on the run from The Centre, a mysterious corporation that kidnapped him as a child and used him for different dark ops kind of work for governments and stuff. It was wonderfully twisty with mythology and stuff and Jarod would adopt new identities every week in a new place to do good works (“he defends the weak and abused”). Someday I will write about that show here!

  6. Greg Burgas

    I have nothing to say except that one of the endings of The Fugitive that was discussed (and which Janssen wanted, apparently) was that after everything has been resolved, he’d be standing by the ocean watching the sunset, and he’d take off his wooden arm and throw it in the surf and then turn around, smiling. FADE TO BLACK!!!!!!!

  7. fit2print

    The Hulk was also in full-on Fugitive mode during Bruce Jones’ lengthy run on the title as writer back in the… ummm… early 2000s (?)

    I’m not too sure this long series of issues is especially fondly remembered by fans – I recall reading widespread complaints that it was a case of too much Banner and not enough, well, “rage monster” but it worked just fine for me: I ended up binge reading about eight trades of the stuff and loving every second of it.

  8. Jeff Nettleton

    I watched the whole series of The Phoenix. I liked the concept and kept hoping something would be done with it; but, nada. Richard Lynch was fun, though, in his usual full evil mode. I don’t think I ever saw him play anything other than a villain.

  9. Dredd

    I liked Phoenix when I was a kid, but just watching the intro was enough to make me avoid watching an actual episode as an adult. Keep in mind US scifi TV options were pretty rare and super low budget until Next Generation became an eventual hit.

  10. It’s funny, I always connect The Fugitive with the (earlier) pilot of The Avengers. You know, a doctor trying to solve his wife/fiancee’s murder.

    But of course in The Avengers it was without the whole fugitive aspect, and that character that started off as the lead was soon off the show entirely.

  11. I suddenly remembered one series undiscussed here, a 1993 short-lived comedy called Johnny Bago. The premise is that after being framed for killing a mob boss, a small time goombah goes on the run in a dead man’s Winnebago, traveling around the country. It was a great parody of the tropes, and at times gloriously loopy (Elvis is alive! And driving in a Winnebago too!)

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