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.)
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.
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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