updated 05/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
David Harold Meyer was born into showbiz in Naponee, Nebr., the son of a former Ziegfeld girl. He won a baby contest at six months, made his film debut at 15 with Sonja Henie in It's a Pleasure and was signed by Universal for 32 forgettable films. In 1957 Dick Powell was preparing a TV version of his radio serial Richard Diamond, Private Detective and had decided against repeating the role ("I can't hold my stomach in for 39 weeks," he said). Janssen got the part, and the show's success was the first sign of his power. Another was a reputation, still remembered, as a hard-boozing ladies' man who smoked four packs of cigarettes a day. "I had no obligations," he said of the time between his two marriages. "Except to my own pleasure."
Having tasted Fugitive glory, Janssen worked and played even harder to keep it. He made features, TV movies and more series, including Harry O, with its tailor-made-for-Janssen, world-weary detective. "Working in TV is like making love to a gorilla," he once said. "You don't stop when you want to stop; you stop when the gorilla wants to stop." The gorilla never got its say: On Feb. 13, 1980 Janssen, 49 and still a star, was stopped by a heart attack. "He was a good man and a bad boy," director Richard Lang eulogized. "God, was he fun."