February 3, 2016

The fugitive kind

Roy Huggins always denied it, but the myth persists to this day: the hit show he created, The Fugitive, was based, at least in part, on the real-life murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard.

It’s impossible to say whether or not any aspect of the Sheppard case influenced Huggins’ creative process. It’s true that in 1960, when Huggins says he came up with the idea for The Fugitive, the Sheppard case had been dormant for six years. Nonetheless, considering that Sheppard’s 1954 trial for the murder of his wife was called the “Trial of the Century” and garnered international coverage (think Casey Anthony minus the Internet and 24-hour news), it’s certainly plausible that Huggins, like most Americans, would have heard about the trial and that it might have lodged somewhere in his subconscious.*

*Sheppard certainly thought so, as he threatened to sue ABC after he was acquitted in his 1966 retrial. 

At any rate, while there are obvious links between the two (both were doctors accused of murdering their wife, both claimed they saw someone else fleeing the scene of the crime, although David Janssen was better looking than Sam Sheppard), the greatest link of them is also the least obvious and the most incredible.*

*Although I’ve long had a strong interest in the Sheppard case and long been a fan of the TV show, I didn’t know about this until reading it in James Neff’s book The Wrong Man.

Hayes at the Sheppard trial.
You see, in the 1954 trial the prosecution claimed Sheppard’s motive for murdering his wife was an affair he’d had with a nurse named Susan Hayes. Sheppard originally denied the affair, and depending on who you ask he either did or didn’t consider divorcing his wife and marrying Hayes. Throughout the buildup to the trial, Hayes’ name and picture were plastered on newspapers throughout the country, columnists breathlessly discussing “The Other Woman.” Sheppard insisted that the affair was purely physical and had ended months before the murder. Regardless, Hayes – who’d moved to Los Angeles in the meantime – returned to Cleveland and appeared as a star witness for the prosecution.

After the trial, in which Sheppard was convicted of second-degree murder, Hayes returned to Los Angeles, where she eventually married Ken Wilhoit, who worked in Hollywood as a music editor and supervisor for various television series, including several for producer Quinn Martin: 12 O’Clock High, The FBI, Cannon, Barnaby Jones, and – you guessed it – The Fugitive. Paul Harvey couldn’t have made this up.

The relationship between The Fugitive and the Sheppard case was often commented on during the show’s run, and I have to wonder, assuming they were still married in 1963 when the series started, just what went through Susan Hayes’ mind when she found out what show her husband was working on. If, indeed, he ever shared the news with her.


  1. Great article, Mitchell...I am also a Fugitive fan, having watched it faithfully as a kid and also on sick days when ABC affiliates showed reruns at 1 pm weekdays. The connection of Susan Hayes to both is compelling.

    1. Those sick day viewings were always a treat, weren't they? Growing up in Minnesota, it applied to snow days as well. Thanks for the kind words!

    2. Upstate NY were famous for snow days as well..Syracuse is infamous for getting 200" a year...

  2. An interesting fact I didn't know about one of my all-time favorite shows.

    1. If we'd made that up, nobody would have believed it, would they?

  3. Wow! That's such a weird twist of fate! I've always loved The Fugitive, and I've kind of heard about the Sam Sheppard case, but this has made me want to look more deeply into the connection. Thanks so much!


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