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David Janssen: 16 Man on the Run Facts About ‘The Fugitive’ Star

Discover so much more about the life and career of the actor, including the controversial film that could have ruined it all

Although steadily employed throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, David Janssen saw his status as an actor and a star rise significantly in 1963 when he made his debut in the television series The Fugitive.

Created by Roy Huggins (Maverick, The Rockford Files), the concept of the show was brilliant, especially for the time: David Janssen is Richard Kimble, a doctor wrongly convicted in the murder of his wife who, through fate’s helping hand, escapes from justice and goes on the run, desperate to find the one-armed man he knows is responsible and clear his own name. In pursuit — doggedly — is Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse). Sorry to spoil a show that’s over 60-years-old, but four seasons and 120 episodes later, Kimble is proven to be an innocent man.

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David Janssen himself admitted he was rather stunned at the impact The Fugitive had with the audience. “I’ve had many surprises my acting career,” he related to the Oakland Tribune at the time, “but nothing compares with my astonishment over the number of calls I get each week about Dr. Richard Kimble. Recently, a two-line personal in the Los Angeles Times notified Dr. Richard Kimble that the one-armed man had been seen in Laguna Beach. None of our publicists had anything to do with this and to this day I don’t know who placed the ad or why.”

He was born David Harold Meyer on March 27, 1931 in Naponee, Nebraska, and obviously there’s much more to know about David Janssen before, during and after The Fugitive — which you’re about to discover.

1. He owes his entertainment career to his mother

Photo of Flo Ziegfeld, Dean of Broadway Revue Producers, with some of the beautiful American girls 'glorified' in his follies of 1931
Photo of Flo Ziegfeld, Dean of Broadway Revue Producers, with some of the beautiful American girls ‘glorified’ in his follies of 1931Getty

Janssen’s mother, who began calling herself Bernice Dalton, was a former beauty show competitor —Miss Nebraska in 1928, placing ninth in the Miss America finals — turned Ziegfeld Follies showgirl. She would travel in various musicals accompanied by her son David, who would spend a great deal of time backstage and pick up various skills, among them piano and accordian playing, dancing and singing. , and spending a great deal of time backstage, he gradually learned how to play the piano and accordion, dance and sing.

In 1957, in a profile they were writing on David Janssen, The Post-Standard noted, “In 1942, Mrs. Meyer settled in Hollywood, where she became a photographer’s model and played small roles in the movies. She divorced Meyer and later married Eugene Janssen, a Los Angeles business man.” Her son would eventually take on Eugene’s last name as part of his professional moniker.

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2. David Janssen had appeared in 35 movies by the time he was 21

Actress Kathryn Grant with David Janssen attends Audra Martin party in Los Angeles, California in 1957
Actress Kathryn Grant with David Janssen attends Audra Martin party in Los Angeles, California in 1957 Getty

At the age of 14, he started attending Fairfax High School, and by that time had already appeared in six movies, the first being an uncredited part in 1945’s It’s a Pleasure followed by nearly two dozen others in which no one knew who he was, though he did have a character name in nine of them.

One summer saw him performing in the “straw hat circuit” in Ogunquit and Kennebunkport, Maine. Additionally, he rehearsed a pair of plays that failed to get to Broadway and in response decided to return to Hollywood and focus on movies. In 1951 — at the ripe old age of 21 — Universal-International signed him for the film Yankee Buccaneer.

3. The Army Life: Real to Reel

Ring of Fire, 1961
Ring of Fire, 1961©MGM/courtesy

He joined the Army in 1952 and was there for two years, serving in special services at Ford Ord, California where he would be a part of entertaining the troops. Discharged in 1954 he found himself working in film again, though seven of his movies between then and 1958 saw him playing military characters.

“I was on active duty for two years. I returned to this wonderful land of glamor, bright lights, beautiful girls and comfortable living. And inside of one whole week I had a spot as a cavalry captain in Chief Crazy Horse. And it didn’t end there. Three weeks later I’m crawling flat on my stomach at Anzio with Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back. And a month later I’m a corporal in Cult of the Cobra.” (SOURCE: Binghamton, New York’s Press and Sun-Bulletin)

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4. His early movie career was a rollercoaster ride

Despite all of his previous credits or “non-credits” he considered his first real movie to be 1960’s Hell to Eternity.

Hell to Eternity, was a hit with the critics and it made money. After that came the disasters. Remember Dondi? No? Well, neither does anyone else. That picture brought back home slides and radio; one of the great bombs of our time. Then there was King of the Roaring ’20s. I played a gangster. The picture wasn’t a catastrophe, but it wasn’t a threat to West Side Story either. Twenty Plus Two was a turkey. After that, I settled for an adventure drama, Ring of Fire, and it was a qualified disappointment. The sixth was Mantrap and it just sort of laid there.” (SOURCE: The Times of San Mateo)

5. His First TV Series Was Richard Diamond, Private Detective

Television guest appearances in the late 1950s led to his being cast in the Dick Powell radio drama turned TV show Richard Diamond, Private Detective, which saw him as the title character, a former NYPD police officer who has become a P.I.

Reviewed the San Francisco Examiner in 1957, “It lacks the suspense of the original that paid off in an era when private eyes were the rage of radio and Sam Spade was supreme. Nevertheless, it’ll be a star-maker for youthful, debonair David Janssen, who takes over where Powell began. He looks good, acts good, sounds good. Last week’s opus was a hum-and-drum half hour about a kidnapped heiress whom Janssen rescued with no resistance from the unimaginative writers. The show failed to impress me, Janssen did. He’ll go places in television.” Truer words were never written.

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6. David Janssen tended to reflect on his career with the media

David Janssen in tux and overcoat; circa 1960; New York
David Janssen in tux and overcoat; circa 1960; New York Getty

“You know, my life has been an odd mixture of success and failure. Mostly success, but failure always seemed to rear its ugly head. Every inch of the way has been a struggle for me. You don’t know how good it feels to be known as a person who can pay his bills. It’s a wonderful feeling. Believe me, it wasn’t always that way. I’m satisfied with my work, but when Diamond no longer entertains the audience, which I hope will never happen, I’d like to move on to motion pictures or the stage.

“[But] I think the series will continue for a good while. I believe the audience likes authenticity and they get this from Diamond. He’s the kind of guy who’s human. He makes mistakes. He doesn’t always win. It’s a task trying to keep a show moving for 24 minutes, but I think we’re doing it.” (SOURCE: 1958 edition of the Los Angeles Times)

7. By March 1961, he seemed to be featured everywhere

Debbie Reynolds with David Janssen and his wife in 1962
Debbie Reynolds with David Janssen and his wife in 1962Getty

In early 1961, the Santa Cruz Sentinel noted that David Janssen, over the past year, had shot 10 episodes of Richard Diamond, spent a month in summer stock, shot a TV pilot and had been in six films that featured him in virtually every scene. As he pointed out, “There’s only one road to success in this town, and that’s lots of work, good scripts and sensible casting.”

“I would say David Janssen is one of the most under-appreciated actors of perhaps the last two generations,” muses Ed Robertson, author of The Fugitive Recaptured and host of the classic television podcast TV Confidential.

“When I wrote The Fugitive Recaptured, I spoke to Stan Whitmore, who wrote the pilot episode and three or four others in the first season. He got to know Janssen a bit during that first year and felt that Janssen didn’t realize what a good performer he was. He said he also desired to be a film actor, and people like that used television as a stepping stone. Janssen enjoyed great success on television, first with Richard Diamond, Private Detective and then with The Fugitive, and did pretty much every anthology show there was before The Fugitive. But he didn’t seem to value his success in television, because it meant he wasn’t a movie star.”

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8. The Fugitive changed the life and career of David Janssen

Running from 1963 to 1967, The Fugitive made a huge impact on the television landscape and, despite his protestations that he would prefer to be a movie star, David Janssen’s career. At the same time, he did praise the uniqueness of its “man on the run” premise.

“I feel it’s a new approach; a premise that has not been attempted before on TV. I also feel it’s a good opportunity not only for me as an individual, but for me as an actor. I play Dr. Richard Kimble, but as a fugitive, I am unable to practice medicine. One week I might take a job as a farmhand, which brings a new set of problems. Then I might be a bartender with another set of problems. I’m still the same basic character, but each week I have to adapt to different problems, just as we all do in real life. We get a little closer to the truth, the way life really is. As a result, the role is more of a challenge.” (SOURCE: Los Angeles Times)

9. At the time, he seemed to appreciate his TV success

The Fugitive, 1965
The Fugitive, 1965©WBDiscovery/courtesy

“When I completed three years of the Richard Diamond series, I figured I was eligible to advance to the big time: movies. Only I found this wasn’t so anymore. Of the five movies I’d made since being Richard Diamond, I’m only proud of two. I discovered that even with million dollar budgets, there are bad movies that don’t compare with the best in television. I wasn’t particularly proud of Richard Diamond either; it was pure escape nonsense with me as an expensively tailored private eye who showed nary a scratch for the hair-breadth escapes from death he underwent every week.” (SOURCE: The Troy Record)

“When it first went into production, I didn’t think of it as having any social significance. I considered it merely realistic dramatic entertainment. It is amazing, but The Fugitive became a sort of morality play for a lot of people. I recently returned from my first trip to Europe. I was amazed to discover how many people in other countries enjoy the show. The theme of The Fugitive has universality. Perhaps that’s why it translates so easily into different languages.

“Maybe in all of us there is a feeling of having been wrongly accused in some way. Viewers have a degree of personal involvement that only they can testify to. I certainly don’t feel qualified to speak in sweeping terms, but I do believe that every successful show has three important ingredients: production, entertainment and a sense of personal involvement. I think The Fugitive fits that description.” (SOURCE: Santa Maria Times)

10. The Fugitive was one of the first TV series to actually have an ending

If the ABC network had had its way, The Fugitive would have simply ended with television viewers left with the impression that Dr. Richard Kimble remained on the run. Fighting against this notion was network executive Leonard Goldman.

In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Leonard explains, “I went to the president of the network and said to him, ‘We can’t just end the series with another episode. People who have been watching the series have to see it resolved,” he reflected in an interview with the Archive of American Television. “He and other senior members of management looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘What are you talking about? It’s over.’ I said, ‘It’s not over. They’ve invested in this for four years. We’ve got to come to a conclusion.’”

Obviously he made his point and The Fugitive ended with the two-part episode The Judgment,” in which the one-armed man is brought to justice and Richard Kimble cleared of his wife’s murder. They became the highest-rated TV episodes up until that time.

““What the ratings illustrated to me,” Goldberg relates, “was the very people who made television, who controlled television, saw the numbers and knew that 20 million people were watching, but thought that they were just watching and didn’t care. I thought, ‘What a sad commentary on our business that the people in charge don’t believe in the power of their own medium.’”

11. By the time The Fugitive ended, David Janssen was ready to move on

On set with Dodgers pitchers of the 1967 film Warning Shot
On set with Dodgers pitchers of the 1967 film Warning ShotGetty

“We explored all the story possibilities and stopped while we were ahead. When we finished, everyone involved felt it was a job well done. There wasn’t that ‘Auld Lang Syne’ feeling of sadness that it all over. Now I’m looking forward to a long vacation before becoming very active as an actor again. It could be on the stage, television, radio, movies — I’m more interested in the project than the medium. I just hope I can find something that interests me as much as The Fugitive has.” (SOURCE: Los Angeles Times)

12. John Wayne’s The Green Berets had David Janssen be met by controversy

John Wayne, as a special forces Colonel in Vietnam, with David Janssen in The Green Berets,1968
John Wayne, as a special forces Colonel in Vietnam, with David Janssen in The Green Berets, 1968Getty

The film that derailed John Wayne’s career to some degree was the 1968 pro-Vietnam film The Green Berets, which cast David Janssen as a reporter named George Beckworth. He spoke to the media round the time of the film’s release, emphasizing he didn’t like sharing his views on the war publicly.

“Actors shouldn’t become involved in politics anyway. But all I know is that our boys are dying over there. I don’t think you can turn your back on them. My own views on the war change from day to day. Sometimes I think it’s a war of aggression and we ought to get out of there. But other times, I’m convinced it’s communism and we ought to continue sending our boys supplies and guns. Since we are caught up in the mess, I think we should do everything to win it.” (SOURCE: New York Daily News)

13. He secured a diversity of roles later in his career

David Janssen reads a script circa 1970's
David Janssen reads a script circa 1970’s Getty

Between 1968 and 1981, David Janssen starred in a dozen films and 20 television movies, the latter of which were all the rage at the time. Comments Ed Robertson, “Throughout the ’70s he had a large Q-rating, the equivalent of the ‘it factor.’ Viewers knew who David Janssen was, which is why the networks were looking for projects for him. He didn’t do much in the way of guest star appearances after The Fugitive — a two-hour Cannon comes to mind — and I don’t know whether that was a decision he made or if his manager suggested it, but it kind of fueled the star mystique. He was offered so many TV movies, he didn’t need to do guest shots and it allowed him to play different characters.”

14. O’Hara, U.S. Treasury was his third TV series

Jack Webb (best known for Dragnet) created the series O’Hara, U.S. Treasury, in which David Janssen portrayed Jim O’Hara, a Nebraska county sheriff who, following the death of his child and wife in a fire, signs on with the United States Department of the Treasury. Originally made with the cooperation of the government, the situation changed pretty early on, hurting the series.

“We started the series with complete government cooperation, but once we got into shooting, we were hampered at every turn. We couldn’t tell the stories the way we wanted to tell them, because our technical advisers were always afraid. We couldn’t show O’Hara having a drink in a bar, for fear people would think Treasury agents drank on the job. We couldn’t show O’Hara having a relationship with a woman, because the Treasury Department was afraid the public would feel agents fooled around on the job. The situation got so ridiculous that the series eventually wasn’t much more than a shallow recruiting commercial for the Treasury Department.” (SOURCE: the Sacramento Bee)

15. Harry O was his fourth and final TV show

During the period where he starred in all of those TV movies, two of them (1973’s Harry O — Such Dust as Dreams Are Made of and 1974’s Harry O – Smile Jenny, You’re Dead) featured him as private detective Harry Orwell.

Well, his career had more or less gone full circle as his final series featured him, much as Richard Diamond had in the 1950s, playing that P.I. on a weekly basis from 1974 to 1976 for a total of 44 episodes. Harry, it’s revealed, was a cop shot on duty who, as result, suffers from recurring emotional trauma. This one had an odd behind-the-scenes history. Its initial ratings were only fair, but those numbers went up dramatically in the aftermath of a retooling. Good news, right?

David Janssen in a publicity portrait issued for Harry O, USA, circa 1975
David Janssen in a publicity portrait issued for Harry O, USA, circa 1975 Getty

Despite the upward swing, the series was cancelled by incoming network president Fred Silverman, who wanted to change ABC’s image. Thus he got rid of Harry O and brought in Charlie’s Angels, the irony being that Farrah Fawcett had actually been a recurring character on Harry O as Harry’s girlfriend, Sue Ingham. Believing Harry was his best character ever, David Janssen swore it would be his last TV series. As it turned out, he was right.

16. David Janssen, Personally speaking …

David Janssen with first wife Ellie Graham, circa 1963
David Janssen with first wife Ellie Graham, circa 1963 Getty

David Janssen was married twice, first to interior decorator and model Ellie Graham from 1958 to 1968; and then to actress and model Dani Crayne Greco from 1975 until his death. That happened, sadly, on February 13, 1980, from a heart attack when he was just 48. Unfortunately, for much of his life he smoked four packs of cigarettes a day and drank in excess, all of it taking a toll on his body.

David Janssen with second wife Dani on the street; circa 1970
David Janssen with second wife Dani on the street; circa 1970 Getty

Escondido, California’s Times-Advocate noted in his obituary for the actor by writer Gary Deeb, “The death of David Janssen at age 49 represents more than just the passing of another Hollywood celebrity.  It literally robs television of one of the few stars whose talent and personality were ideally suited to the peculiar requirements of that 21-inch screen in everybody’s living room.”

Bonus Fact: The Fugitive spawned a number of spin-offs

The Fugitive would be the basis of the 1993 film of the same name starring Harrison Ford as Richard Kimble and Tommy Lee Jones as Inspector Gerard; a 2000 TV reboot with Tim Daly as Kimble, Mykeiti Williamson as Gerard and Stephen Lang as the one-armed man; and a 2020 series for Quibi with Boyd Holbrook as Mike Ferro, a cop accused of a terrorist act, and Kiefer Sutherland as the cop chasing him, Detective Clay Bryce.

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