Read an Excerpt
Dear Stacy: Please settle a bet. Wasn't The Fugitive series based on the classic novel Les Misérables?Mitch R., New York
Dear Mitch: Actually, the 1960s TV series was inspired by the story of Sam Sheppard, the Cleveland dentist convicted of murdering his wife. Sheppard, who died penniless in 1970, spent 10 years in prison before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1966. He always insisted that a "bushy-haired intruder" killed his wife and knocked him unconscious after a struggle on the night of July 4, 1954.... (Chattanooga Times, August 1, 2000)
First off, let me say that I love the idea of someone named "Mitch R." in New York making a bet about such literary matters, rather than the usual Mets-against-Yankees stuff. I can just picture the scene as Mitch and his friendlet's call him Vinnieare on a loading dock somewhere on Long Island, as Mitch flips through the newspaper.
Mitch: "It says here there's going to be a new TV series based on The Fugitive, this time starring Timothy Daly of Wings fame."
Vinnie: "Is that so? Well, it will be difficult for Daly to match the angst of David Janssen's performance in the original series, or the intensity Harrison Ford displayed in the big-screen adaptation. But I do enjoy his work."
Mitch: "Well, the key is the material. And with The Fugitive basedon Victor Hugo's classic novel, Les Misérables, I don't see how it can be a bad program."
Vinnie: "What have you been smoking? In Les Misérables, Inspector Javert was the bad guy, and the hunted one, Jean Valjean, was the good guy."
Mitch: "Yes, but in both cases, the hunted man does good deeds."
Vinnie: "But everyone knows The Fugitive was based on the Sam Sheppard case!"
Mitch: "Was not!"
Vinnie' "Was so!"
Vinnie: "I'll bet you a hundred bucks!"
Mitch: "You're on! There's only one way to settle this: I'll write my letter to Stacy right now!"
* * *
Not that Stacy was advancing any new theories with her assertion that The Fugitive TV show of the 1960s and the subsequent revival movie and television series were based on the sensational case of Dr. Sam Sheppard. (By the way, Stacy: Sheppard was an osteopathic physician specializing in surgery in the Cleveland suburb of Bay Village, not a dentist.) For nearly 40 years, ever since The Fugitive premiered on ABC-TV in 1963, it's been an accepted part of pop culture lore that the story of the wrongly convicted Dr. Richard Kimble and his single-minded pursuit of his wife's killer was inspired by the circumstances of the Sheppard case.
Before O.J. Simpson came along and didn't kill Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, many observers considered Sheppard to be the "star" of the most sensational trial of the last half of the 20th century.
Some background: Dr. Sam Sheppard was a successful physician who, by outward appearances, seemed to be living the American dream of the 1950s. In addition to his thriving career, his personal life was seemingly idyllic. He had married his high school sweetheart, Marilyn, and they had a fine son and a lovely home on Lake Erie in a posh suburb of Cleveland.
But the dream was shattered on the night of July 4, 1954, when Marilyn Sheppard was bludgeoned and attacked in her bed while the Sheppards' 7-year-old son slept in a room down the hall. Sam Sheppard claimed that he had fallen asleep downstairs and was awakened by his wife's cries for help; he said he stumbled through the dark house, up the stairs and into the bedroom, where he encountered a "bushy-haired stranger" who knocked him unconscious. When Sheppard awoke, he saw his wife's bloody body. (It was later determined that she had been struck as many as 35 times about the face and head with a blunt instrument.) After ascertaining that his wife was deceased and checking to make sure his son was all right, Sheppard said he heard a noise on the first floor and ran downstairs. He saw a "form" running outside and followed it to the shore of Lake Erie, where he once again lost consciousness. When Sheppard regained consciousness, he had only a hazy memory of what had happened. He returned to his home, called Bay Village Mayor Spencer Houk (who was a family friend) and said, "My God, Spence, get over here quick. I think they have killed Marilyn."
But police and prosecutors didn't buy Sheppard's "intruder" story, and on July 30, 1954, he was arrested and charged with his wife's murder. After several weeks of intense publicity, the Sheppard case went to trial on October 18, 1954. During the proceedings it was revealed that Dr. Sheppard had maintained a "swinging" lifestyle and had carried on with a car dealer's wife and a lab technician, and that he and Marilyn had had a volatile relationship.
Two months later, a jury convicted Sheppard, and he spent 10 years in prison before the Supreme Court overturned the verdict, ruling that overwhelmingly prejudicial pretrial publicity had tainted the first verdict.
In 1966, Sheppard was tried again, this time for second-degree murder. He was defended by flamboyant attorney F. Lee Bailey and was acquitted.
Sheppard died broke in 1970, still thought of as guilty by millions, yet still maintaining his innocence. In the spring of 2000, the Sheppards' son, Sam Reese Sheppard, went to court with a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit that he hoped would clear his father's name once and for all. Sam Reese's attorneys tried to use DNA evidence to make the case that a third person's blood was found at the scenebut the passage of time had left them with less-than-perfect specimens, and after 10 weeks of testimony from more than 70 individuals, the eight-person jury took less than six hours to reject Sheppard's claim. In November of 2000, an attorney for Sheppard argued that the jury was too swift in its deliberations and the ruling should be overturned or a new trial ordered.
And when the Associated Press reported this latest development, the story said: "The civil trial ... was the latest episode in the sensational murder case that inspired the movie and TV series The Fugitive."
Or did it? In the summer of 2000, as CBS started promoting a new version of The Fugitive, with the aforementioned Tim Daly as Dr. Richard Kimble, Mykelti Williamson as the dogged Lt. Philip Gerard, and Stephen Lang as "the one-armed man," the man who created the franchise told reporters that The Fugitive is not now and never has been based on the Sheppard case.
Roy Huggins, now in his mid-80s, is the creator and/or executive producer of such TV shows as 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, The Virginian, Baretta, The Rockford Filesand The Fugitive. In the summer of 2000, Huggins, along with the stars of The Fugitive and executive producer Arnold Kopelson, met with TV critics from across the country. At a press conference, Huggins explained the genesis of The Fugitive:
"I've never gone independently out there to say [The Fugitive] is not based on the Sheppard case. But constantly I'm asked if it was. The answer is no. I was writing and directing movies [here in Hollywood] when the murder took place. It was 1954. And I didn't even know about it.
"In 1960, I came up with The Fugitive and I had The Fugitive concept all in order, except for one thing: What did he do for a living before he got into this terrible mess? And I thought it over and decided that, one, at that time anyway, everybody liked doctors. And two, if I made him a doctor, that meant that we could increase the suspense immeasurably on occasion. When here he is dressed like a plumber and someone gets badly hurt and he has to exercise his skills and his obligations as a doctor to do something that no one can believe this plumber is doing. And he is, in effect, exposing himself.
"So that's why he became a doctor. It was a year later that F. Lee Bailey took over the case and it got more publicity, but that was long after I had already made Dr. Kimble a doctor."
Actually, Huggins has often made the rather curious claim that he hadn't even heard of the first Sheppard trial when he created the concept for The Fugitive several years later.
"I invented The Fugitive in 1960, and I had never heard of Sam Sheppard," Huggins told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a story published in February of 2000. "I don't care whether people say The Fugitive was based on the Sheppard case. The only reason I deny it is it happens to be the truth."
At least Huggins is consistent with his denials. In 1993, as the movie version with Harrison Ford was racking up big numbers at the box office, Huggins was telling essentially the same tale: "I suppose connecting Kimble to Sheppard makes a more sensational story," Huggins told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. "I wouldn't care as much, except that's not the way The Fugitive happened. The news reports are in reckless disregard of the truth."
And in Ed Robertson's book The Fugitive, published that same year, Huggins again denies the Sheppard connection.
But Sheppard's son, Sam Reese Sheppard, isn't swayed by these multiple denials. In an interview for this book, Sheppard said: "I respect my elders, but [Huggins] is speaking Hollywood legalese. He's speaking the language of Hollywood, which is, deny everything so you don't get sued. The man must have been living in Siberia [not to have heard of the case]. It was the [O.J.] Simpson case of its day. It was the print media abuse of the century....
"The first script [for The Fugitive] called for `the red-haired man,' and in the Sheppard case, it was the bushy-haired stranger."
But Sheppard (who believes a window washer is the true murderer of his mother) has written a book called Mockery of Justice about the case and acknowledges that the success of the original Fugitive series was beneficial to his father's defense.
"The Fugitive connection did keep the Sheppard case alive. It was a double-edged sword. My dad was in prison, we were exhausted financially and emotionally. You need to have a notorious case, or the money to keep it going. F. Lee Bailey has been quoted widely as saying that the connection was therethat's how the American public knew about [our case].
"It's just disappointing that these people can't own up and be honest about it ... In all honesty, they should step up to the plate, admit it, and pay a little bit for where the story came from.
"I can say this, [the story] is an American legend now. I try and respect that. It's very disappointing that people don't realize that, step up and be responsible about American history here."
* * *
Let's take a look at the similar threads running between the two stories:
* Dr. Sam Sheppard, wrongly convicted of his wife's murder. Dr. Richard Kimble, wrongly convicted of his wife's murder.
* Sheppard said the real killer was a "bushy-haired intruder." Kimble, at least in the version we all know, maintained that the real killer was a "one-armed stranger."
* Marilyn Sheppard was pregnant when she was murdered. In a flashback episode of The Fugitive, we learned that the character of Helen Kimble had been pregnant, but the child had been stillborn a short time before the murder.
* Dr. Richard Kimble escapes from a train wreck and has a series of adventures while staying one step ahead of Gerard (and one step behind the one-armed man), whereas in the real world, Dr. Sam Sheppard never escaped and never brought the real killer, if there is such a person, to justice.
In the end, it comes down to motive. If Roy Huggins had used the Sheppard case as the basis for The Fugitive, nobody would have accused hint of doing anything wrong, as countless plays, novels, and scripts have been inspired by actual events. If anything, he would have been praised for recognizing the dramatic potential of the real story and transforming it into an episodic gem. Huggins has no motive for denying the connection, and because he is the only one who truly knows what was in his mind's eye when he first envisioned The Fugitive some 40 years ago, we should take him at his word and categorize the Sheppard-Kimble connection as urban legend.