The First Fugitive

updated 09/13/1993 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/13/1993 01:00AM

Another night and another road, and still the deadly game goes on. And so must he. North, south, east, west, a man alone: the Fugitive.

THAT LONELY GUY COULD ONLY BE RICHARD Kimble, the small-town Indiana physician who went on the lam after being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. And who kept on fleeing—on ABC's hit series The Fugitive (1963-67). Trailed by the relentless Lieutenant Gerard, Kimble was constantly in pursuit of the true killer, a mysterious one-armed man he finally caught up with at the end of the fourth season.

When NBC rebroadcast that final episode last month, many curious viewers tuned in, no doubt having just seen this summer's hugely successful movie version ($111 million at the box office in its first four weeks), in which Harrison Ford makes a convincingly desperate Kimble. But to replay that sonorous introduction by series' narrator William Conrad is to conjure up once more the brooding charisma of the original Kimble, David Janssen.

Thanks to the film, Janssen, 13 years after his death, is having a renaissance. The staying power of his furtive, haunted performance is undeniable. Indeed, what one critic described as a "morning-after, husky-voiced machismo" became Janssen's trademark throughout his TV career (in O'Hara, U.S. Treasury and Harry O). Even his 1970 commercial for Excedrin hinted at an implosive toughness. As he once told an interviewer, "I've conditioned myself to hole [anger] up inside. Hard on the stomach."

Janssen lived hard, in general. A heavy drinker and four-pack-a-day smoker, he died of a heart attack at 48. He was legendary in Hollywood not only for his imbibing but also for his affairs (most famously with Angie Dickinson, his costar in A Sensitive, Passionate Man, a 1977 TV movie in which he gave a gut-wrenching performance as an alcoholic). And he was no less renowned for the high-spending lifestyle that he shared with his second wife, Dani, 57, a former actress. (Janssen had been married to model Ellie Graham from 1958 to 1968.) They never drank from anything other than Baccarat, Dani says, "and the mink bedcover had to be from Gucci."

But the man who, as Gerard, hunted him for four seasons doesn't buy that playboy image. Says Barry Morse, 75: "People most often say to me, 'Oh, David Janssen. He was on the booze, that's what killed him.' Nonsense. People don't realize he was the hardest-working actor there probably has ever been in the whole history of TV."

In fact, Janssen, on-camera for almost every scene, carried the series through its 120-episode run. His hard work was amply rewarded: He earned up to $4.5 million a year. But by 1967, says Richard Anderson, who played Kimble's brother-in-law, Len Taft, "David finally had to quit because he was too tired." ABC decided to let the chase end.

Despite Janssen's herculean work ethic, his colleagues remember him as a very funny man off-camera. "No one ever made use of his wonderfully wry, dry, whimsical sense of humor," Morse laments. "I would have had him playing those romantic parts that characterized Cary Grant."

In fact, Janssen was a man of many parts. Anderson remembers him being at his happiest just relaxing in his trailer with a book. And he was a romantic. Songwriter Carol Connors, once Janssen's lover, remembers being upset that Janssen took Dickinson instead of her to a black-tie awards dinner. "I spent the night crying," she said, "but the next day he showed up at my door without a shirt, wearing a black lie and carrying a bouquet of flowers. He said, 'You told me you wanted to go to a black-lie affair.' " Dickinson also has sweet praise for him. "He was a man who took charge, which I love," she says. "He had poise and grace."

Still, not even his considerable charm could mask Janssen's discontent. "He was a neurotic fellow, highly charged, and you could see it all in his work—his dark heart," says Anderson. "He was tortured somehow."

Certainly Janssen, who was born in Naponee, Nebr., in 1931, had a tangled relationship with his mother, Berniece, a onetime Miss Nebraska and Ziegfeld girl. Her marriage to David's father, banker Harold Meyer, was short-lived. She and David eventually moved to Los Angeles, where she hoped to resume her showbiz career. But it was her handsome young son who was being noticed by stars and cast in small parts—including Swamp Fire, with Johnny Weissmuller, at 14. "David was lovable and beautiful," says Berniece, now 83, who married Eugene Janssen, a trucking executive, in 1940.

But David also was seething over the traumatic time—while he was between the ages of 9 and 12—when Berniece, who says she was desperately short of money, put him in the McKinley Home for children from broken families. Janssen never forgot it, says Dani, who married him in 1975. "Every party that we ever went to during the 10 years we were together, it was inevitable that one of my friends would say, 'Okay, David's in the orphanage.' He was drunk, in other words, and sinking into melancholy ruminations on life at McKinley.

He was especially gloomy on Sundays, recalls Dani (who is currently separated from her fourth husband, action-movie director Hal Needham). "He told me, 'When and if my mother picked me up at the orphanage on Saturdays, she always took me back on Sunday."

Although Janssen supported his mother financially—and although, in reality, the "home" was a comfortable, tree-lined complex in the San Fernando Valley—he had the last, bitter word. Dani inherited her husband's entire estate, worth at least $1O million. "He left his mother $1 in his will," says Dani. "That tells you something, doesn't it?" To which Berniece, who once threatened to challenge the estate, replies, "Dani says he left me a dollar in his will, but I haven't seen it."

There have been other, darker tales about Janssen's death. According to one biographer, he died after an exhausting day of drugs and sex, first with a married woman, then in a threesome. His widow disputes these stories. First, she says, "David did not do drugs." (In fact, Janssen's death certificate identified no illegal substances in his blood.) Second, he was working all day on a TV movie, Father Damien: The Leper Priest. Dani also dismisses the allegation of a sexual binge. Although their marriage had certainly seen rough times—during a five-month separation in 1976, he was very publicly involved with Dickinson, while Dani dated James she she had —the couple spent what Dani recalls as a contented final evening together. "Normally, David had a tag line for every compliment," she says, "but that night he said, 'You know how long I've loved you?' And he said, 'Tonight there's no tag.' He said the most beautiful, caring things."

The next morning, she awoke to hear David, beside her in bed, choking, she thought, on some cookies that she she had hidden in a drawer to keep her husband on his diet. "I had never seen anyone have a heart attack before," she explains.

Dani chose the Sunday after David's death for the funeral. Afterward friends gathered on the beach near the couple's Malibu home, Dani remembers, "and everyone told wonderful, loving, funny stories about David." Because of the grim boyhood memories that day had always evoked, she says, "I wanted his last Sunday to be a happy one."

TOM GLIATTO
DORIS BACON in Los Angeles and FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Toronto

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