How ‘The Fugitive’ Proved TV Shows Could End Successfully

In television, there is often a strange, inherent tension between the fans who watch shows and the executives who oversee them.

The former want good stories, compellingly told, that make sense and, when the time is right, come to a satisfying conclusion. The latter want to make money, which often means extending shows as long as possible and sometimes even leaving things unresolved at the end because the lack of resolution keeps people guessing and can help the shows gain longevity in syndication. Often the leaders win, but when the fans do, they have the last episodes of ABC’s The refugee, which was sent on Aug. 29, 1967, to give thanks for it.

The show was created by Roy Huggins and began in September. 17, 1963, with one of the biggest TV spots of all time: A doctor named Richard Kimble (David Janssen) has been convicted of the murder of his wife, although he claims to be innocent, and that instead she was killed by “a – armed man.” But the train carrying him to be executed derails and he escapes. This allows him to clear his name by finding the one-armed man (Bill Raisch), but it also means that Kimble is relentlessly hunted by a police detective named Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse), who wants to return him to death row.

See the opening and closing credits of ‘The Fugitive’

Though The refugee was only an average hit – that topped out at No. 5 in the Nielsen ratings in its second season and then falling out of the Top 30 in its final two seasons—it was deeply influential, spawned a hit 1993 film adaptation starring Harrison Ford, and its critical reputation has continued to increase over the years.

The show epitomizes the early 60s in the way it bridges the decade that just ended and the one that was beginning. From the aura of 50s America, it brings a wholesome, straightforward sense of the possibility of true justice: Although Kimble is a vagabond, moving from place to place and working odd jobs while pursuing the one-armed man, each of the 120 episodes projects the sense that eventually the truth will come out and Kimble will be vindicated.

At the same time, the show shows strong traces of the waves of anti-establishment sentiment and perhaps even cynicism that would sweep the nation as the late ’60s rolled into the ’70s. Despite the belief that justice will prevail, the show also contains more than a hint of the feeling that something may be wrong with the power structures of America. The law enforcement apparatus hunts Kimble – in the person of Lt. Gerard – often seems more interested in the arbitrary rule of law than it is in finding the truth, and the people Kimble helps in many of the episodes seem to be victims of a society slowly going wrong.

It was a potent brew, aided by consistently fine writing and a roster of guest stars that reads like a who’s who of ’60s TV actors who would go on to have great careers. Robert Duvall, Bruce Dern, Ed Asner, Telly Savalas, Leslie Nielsen, Tom Skerritt, Charles Bronson, Angie Dickinson, Kurt Russell, Ron Howard, Diane Ladd, Warren Oates, Mickey Rooney and many others showed up, largely attracted by the show’s strong scripts and good stories.

Watch the final scene from the last episode of ‘The Fugitive’

And the show’s distinct setup also raised an important question: Would Kimble catch the one-armed man in the end? As the show neared the end of its fourth season, with declining ratings, the answer appeared to be no.

The penultimate episode aired on April 11, 1967, and as ABC’s vice president of programming at the time, Leonard Goldberg recalled in an interview with Vanity Fair, “I realized that we wanted to leave viewers empty-handed, and that was wrong.” Which is to say, the network planned to leave the show unresolved in hopes that viewers would take this lack of conclusion as a mystery to be solved and watch the show in syndication. Goldberg explained that he fought hard to give viewers the ending they deserved because they were so “deeply invested” in the show.

He won, but the network struck a hard bargain: The final episode — which would be split into two parts — wouldn’t be allowed to air until August, the deadliest time on the TV calendar.

But despite this handicap, the final prevailed. First part of the episode that aired on Aug. 22, did fine. But the second installment smashed every TV ratings record that existed at the time. Over 78 million viewers tuned in to the show, which meant 72% of people watching television that Tuesday night saw The refugee. It was a record for regularly scheduled television – and broke The Beatles‘ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show three years before – that would stand until “Who Shot JR.?” episode of Dallas in 1980.

Not only that, but the episode also represented a complete victory for the fans. The one-armed man confessed to the murder of Kimble’s wife and was shot down by law enforcement. Kimble was then released from his hunt and from being hunted. The show ended with Kimble and a female friend walking down a sidewalk after a couple of cops ignored him as the show’s narrator (William Conrad) announced that it was “Tuesday, September 5th: The Day the Race Stopped.”

It was a milestone in television because it proved that creating a satisfying ending to a show could not only work narratively, but also financially. And in doing so, it opened the door for every other show that wanted to end up giving fans what they deserved.

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