February 19, 2018

The cop you loved to hate

For those of you who aspire to such things, there are, as far as I'm concerned, three criteria necessary to make you a good television villain:
1. The viewers don't root for you;
2. The show's characters actively try to stop you from succeeding; and
3. You’re attacked in real life for what you do on the screen.
Based on those standards, Lieutenant Philip Gerard makes the perfect villain.

Gerard (brilliantly played by Barry Morse) is, as you all probably know, the police detective who serves as the nemesis of Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. You can’t really mention one without the other; they’re almost a team. In fact, we’re introduced to the two men at virtually the same time, sharing opposite ends of a pair of handcuffs while riding a train bound for the death house in Indiana. Kimble has been convicted (wrongly, we are assured) of murdering his wife; Gerard is the detective who investigated the case and is escorting Kimble to prison. When the train derails, Kimble escapes, leaving Gerard holding the bag, or the broken handcuffs, as it were. From that moment to the end of the series, Gerard has but one mission, which is his obsession: to recapture Kimble and bring him in so his death sentence can be carried out.

Now, I know what you're thinking: how can you call a policeman - an honest one at that! - a villain? In Gerard's case, it's easy. Reflecting on his most famous role of a distinguished career, Morse talked of how viewers reacted to him on the street. "Elderly ladies bashed me across the head with their handbags, or some hulking great man would come up to me in a bar and say: 'Don't you understand? The guy's innocent!' It was an enormous compliment -- and quite dangerous." Gerard, he he said, was a character that had been "carefully designed to be disliked. . . . I was the most hated man in America, and I loved it." Gerard might even have influenced Stephen King; “Lt. Gerard really scared me as a kid,” he wrote. “Kimble had made him crazy, and as The Fugitive went on you could see him heading further and further into freako land.”

Series creator Roy Huggins always said that Gerard was based on the character of Inspector Javert, the relentless antagonist in Victor Hugo’s Les MisĂ©rables. It was an obvious idea, really; every chase story requires a pursuer as well as a pursued, and in the intimate world of television, where familiarity means everything, it made far more sense for Kimble to have a semi-regular pursuer than to be on the run from an impersonal authority figure each week. It served to focus the threat in the person of a single man whose individuality provided the face for the long arm of the law.

In fact, Gerard only appears in 37 of the show’s 120 episodes, but it is the threat of Gerard (he's seen in the opening credits of every episode) that makes him so threatening. Even in those episodes where he doesn't appear, his presence hangs over Kimble like the Sword of Damocles; he's the bogeyman hiding under the bed, the monster in the closet, the mysterious something hiding in the shadows of those dark, rain-slick streets.

The three principals: (l to r) The One-Armed Man,
Dr Richard Kimble, Lt. Philip Gerard
By the time the series starts, Gerard is already obsessed with recapturing Kimble; the lieutenant holds himself responsible for Kimble's escape, the single blemish on his career, even though the accident was completely out of his control. No, Gerard had one job to do in order to close the case, and his failure to deliver Kimble to prison haunts him for the length of the series. "I've lost a lot of things these past four years," he says in part one of the series finale, “starting with a prisoner the state told me to guard." Over time, Kimble ceases to be merely an escaped prisoner, and his continued status as a fugitive goes beyond being a challenge to Gerard's integrity, or even perhaps his manhood. Richard Kimble is Philip Gerard's white whale, his Moby Dick.

Beginning with the very first episode broadcast, "Fear in a Desert City," Gerard finds out just how difficult recapturing Kimble is going to be. Appearing at the end of the episode and (as usual) just missing Kimble, he tries to convince Monica Welles (the luminous Vera Miles), a woman whom Kimble had befriended, to tell him where the fugitive had gone. "He's innocent!" Wells tells him. "The law says guilty," Gerard says. Welles' retort: "The law isn't perfect." Welles replies.*

*A sentiment similar to that of Earl Holliman's marshal in "The Good Guys and the Bad Guys," who remarks, "most of the people who make the laws aren't exactly perfect. So I figure that the laws can't be too perfect, and maybe every once in a while they deserve to get broken." That kind of attitude drives Gerard crazy.

Ah, yes - as Charles Dickens wrote, "If the law supposes that, the law is an ass." At this point, Gerard - as relentless as Schwarzenegger's Terminator - must have been receiving some kind of "Unable to Compute" error message. Time and time again over the four seasons of the series, he would be stymied by people whom he felt had been taken in by Kimble. Women attracted to him as if he were a lost kitten needing rescue, or drawn to his smoldering, subdued charisma; men returning favor for favor after witnessing Kimble's loyalty or benefiting from his help; children who saw in him a fellow lost soul, a grown-up who understood them in ways others didn't. (Kimble was, after all, a pediatrician.) It didn't help that Gerard often came off as prickly, self-righteous, or arrogant (which he often was) - in a competition for the hearts and minds of the public, there was never any doubt about who would come off second-best.

On occasion, as in episodes like "Corner of Hell" and "The Evil Men Do," Kimble's allies might even try to do Gerard harm in order to facilitate Kimble's escape, at which the good doctor himself would have to step in on Gerard's behalf. There are even separate episodes where Kimble befriends Gerard's wife and son. Do you think Gerard undergoes any kind of conversion, begins to have even the slightest doubts or second thoughts about continuing his chase of a supposedly guilty murderer who intervenes to save his pursuer's life? Even just to give him, say, a 30 minute head start? Of course not! "I suppose Gerard would say that personal relationships, as between himself and Kimble, are not affected by the accidental happenings which befall him," Morse said. "He would simply say, 'Whether or not this man saved my life doesn't affect my duty to deliver him to the legal system which employs me and which has convicted him. Whether he has been wrongly convicted or not is not my business." Maddening, yes, but in its own way quite admirable.*

*You wonder if Kimble subconsciously needs Gerard to believe in and accept his innocence in order to feel fully vindicated? If Gerard were not around - would it be quite as satisfying? 

The passage of time: Gerard now wears glasses.
Although Gerard continued to fulfill the role of villain throughout the run of the series, that's not to say the character didn't develop over time, coming to display a more nuanced view of his prey. While his determination to recapture Kimble never wavered, Gerard sometimes found himself in the position of defending Kimble against accusations made by other law enforcement officials. In "Stroke of Genius," Kimble, a stranger in town, becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a preacher. Gerard finds the idea ridiculous - Kimble has "never killed anybody while trying to escape, nor has he tried to," he tells the small-town sheriff. Certainly Gerard has motivation to clear Kimble of the crime in order that he can take him back to Indiana, but there's more to it than that. Gerard has come to know Kimble over the years in a way that few others can. While he might deny it, he knows that Kimble's crime, if he indeed did commit it, was one of passion, and likely the only murder he'd ever commit in his life. Other times, Gerard reacts with scorn to the greed of people trying to track down Kimble for the reward. Although Kimble, in Gerard's mind, is an escaped murderer, he's also deserving of some measure of dignity; in "The Good Guys and the Bad Guys," he describes Kimble as clever and resourceful - and also courageous.

Nonetheless, even these glimpses of humanity don't disguise the fact that Gerard can be, and often is, something of a jerk. In one of the greatest Fugitive episodes, the two-part "Landscape with Running Figure," his obsession with Kimble causes his wife (played by Barbara Rush) to leave him*; she poignantly remarks at one point, “Life without Kimble…what a pretty dream that used to be.” In "Nemesis," it's Gerard's son (Kurt Russell), hiding in a car which Kimble steals, who helps the fugitive make his escape. (Need I mention that Philip Gerard Jr. was along because he and his dad were supposed to be on a fishing trip?) In a memorable exchange, young Gerard refuses to tell his dad which way Kimble went. "He says he didn't do it!" Junior says, to which the lieutenant replies, "Of course he says that!" But then his son asks, point blank, "And if he's right? If he's right?" Gerard, after a long pause, can only say, "Well, it means that I'm wrong...doesn't it, Phil?"

*So obsessed with your job that you drive away Barbara Rush? How dumb is that?

In the end, Gerard has one job, to bring Kimble back to face his punishment. It's what makes Gerard's turn in the final episode that much more remarkable. If you've not seen it, I won't spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that it can only be the knowledge of Kimble that Gerard had gained over the four years of the chase that allowed him to finally make the leap. And no matter how much he might try to explain it away by logic, it also means he had to admit to himself that he was wrong.

Actors often talk about how they enjoy playing villains; they're more interesting, there's more to the role. David Janssen was brilliant as Kimble, but without Barry Morse as Gerard, The Fugitive wouldn't be nearly as compelling as it is. It proves that every hero needs a villain, and Philip Gerard, "the most hated man in America," one of television's most complex and unlikely villains, was more than up to the job. TV  

The Classic TV Villain Blogathon is hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Please check out the rest of the wonderful villains by clicking here.

16 comments:

  1. Terrific writeup! The Fugitive is one of my favorite TV series and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Lt. Gerard. Barry Morse was great on a Hitchcock Hour and I also liked him on Space: 1999.

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    1. Thanks, Jack! You're right - Barry Morse was so good in so many of the things he did. And there's not a false note in his performance here.

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  2. Excellent profile of one of the most memorable characters in classic television! Many of the Gerard episodes rank among my favorites during the entire run of THE FUGITIVE, especially: "Corner of Hell," "Nemesis," and "Landscape with Running Figure." (You mention all three, too!) Like the greatest villains, Gerard often elicits sympathy. I felt sorry for him on more than one occasion--it's clear that his obsessive pursuit of Kimble placed a tremendous strain on his family. And, as you point, Barry Morse is superb in the role.

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    1. I think that's one of the things that makes him so interesting, Rick - you know, when he's dealing with some of the boob police in other areas, the ones who think they know Kimble and they don't, you not only feel sorry for him (having to deal with these people!), you come to appreciate just how good a cop he was. I hadn't thought of this until now, but you know how they spun off the Sam Gerard character from the movie version - it would have been interesting to see our Lt. Gerard handle a case other than that of Kimble. He was too much of a villain by that time, though - hard to see the audience ever going for it!

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  3. I remember people who were convinced that Gerard, not the one armed man had killed Mrs. Kimble.

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    1. I remember that too. It would have been quite interesting had the show gone in the direction of establishing Kimble's innocence while at the same time not giving us the clear look at who the killer was, or was supposed to be. Could have been more shadowy, not unlike the "Bushy-Haired" killer of the Dr. Sam Sheppard case.

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  4. Yeah--you said it perfectly. You can't have a Fugitive if he's not running from SOMEONE. Love Barry Morse (even if I knew him on Space: 1999 before I ever had a chance to see him on The Fugitive.) Great essay :)

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    1. Thanks, Joanna! When you've seen Barry Morse in other roles before you see him here, it's quite something to watch how he plays it, and how different he is. Never, ever would have known that he was not from the United States had I not read it.

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  5. I mentioned this once before here, I think, but it bears repeating:

    When The Fugitive was in first run, Barry Morse was a full-time resident of Toronto, Canada; he was a major figure at the CBC network, while traveling to New York and Hollywood for guest shots.
    (Morse's quote: " (The CBC) does the better things better (than American TV); they do the ordinary things not half as well ...")
    Barry Morse made a few talk show appearances during this period, mainly on Les Crane's ABC late-night show, where he startled Crane and the other guests with his geniality and good humor.
    Then he totally won studio audiences with his singing.
    On the Crane show, Morse sang a Noel Coward number, "Don't Put Your Daughter On The Stage, Mrs. Worthington", and followed with a music hall ballad called "My Old Dutch", about an old cockney reminiscing about his long-time wife.
    Before he sang that second song, Morse told of how he'd just returned from a visit to London, where he'd joined the vigil for Sir Winston Churchill.
    As he told the story, he'd overheard one of the crowd saying "I'm glad 'is old dutch is with him at the end ...".
    Morse then explained that "old dutch" is Cockney slang for a long-time spouse, and sang the song.
    Not a dry eye in the house ...
    I fully expected Barry Morse to be a frequent talk show guest, but for whatever reasons, that didn't happen: a couple of Cranes, a Merv Griffin, and that was it.
    Our loss ...
    (I wonder if he ever made a record ...)

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    1. I'm puzzled on that point as well - we was obviously a great talent, and a great guest. Thanks, as always, for sharing that information - you're often a one-man encyclopedia, and I don't thank you for that often enough!

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  6. The arrogance..the intractability of the man - it was maddening to watch at times. There were times in "Trial By Fire" where I was yelling at the screen showing a 50 year old TV show. But that's a tribute to the character and the man who portrayed him. Terrific essay. Do you wish as I do that the finale would have featured a longer discussion between Kimble and Gerard (as I do), or were you content with that final scene between them?

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  8. Admittedly, Gerard could have come off as a one-dimensional Javert (Les Miserables)-type obsessive cop, but, as you pointed out, Morse (and the writers) softened him to the point where I could see him wanting to bring Kimble in to help clear him, citing everyone Gerard encountered who Richard had helped during the long chase, often endangering his own freedom!
    (Ironically, the final episode of Seinfeld followed this concept, except everyone who testified pointed out how Jerry and crew were abosloute shmucks!)

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    1. I didn't see the Seinfeld episode, but I've seen some very funny Fugitive takeoffs, especially one by the former baseball player Tug McGraw, who was a co-author of a comic strip called "Scroogie." In one episode Scroogie is lamenting the arm injury that could end his career - "I mean, who on earth wants a one-armed pitcher?" after which a teammate walks in and says, "Scroogie, there's a Dr. Richard Kimble here to see you."

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  9. Great article, Mitchell! First, did Roy Huggins create everything? Second, I don't know why I've never watched this show as I'm nuts for David Janssen. (Harry O Forever!) Third, I think I just ruined any cool TV cred I had by saying that I've never seen The Fugitive. I'll get on that now. Thanks again!

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    1. Don't worry about your cool quotient - your secret is safe with me. And everyone else who reads this, of course...

      I think you'll like this series. One of the things that I find appealing is the occasional glimpse into the backstory - the trial, Kimble's life with his wife, his family, imagining what kind of a story this would have created in real life (would Kimble have been on the 10 Most Wanted List?). Let me know what you think!

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!