The Day the Running Finally Stopped: Barry Morse (1918-2008)

February 6, 2008

At the risk of letting this blog become just an honor roll of the dead (never my intention), I have to chime in with a few words about the inimitable Barry Morse, who passed away this past Saturday, February 2.

Morse remains beloved by TV fans because of his role on The Fugitive, one of the finest dramas on the tube during the ’60s.  (Less discriminating TV viewers may remember him from his regular role on Space: 1999.)  Morse played the primary pursuer and tormentor to David Janssen’s innocent death-row escapee Dr. Richard Kimble.  Every episode of The Fugitive saw Kimble ducking around corners or thumbing for the freeway to elude the local fuzz in whatever backwater burg he found himself hiding in.  But the really tense episodes, the ones where the producers (Alan Armer and later Wilton Schiller) wanted to up the stakes a notch, put Morse’s Lt. Philip Gerard on the case. 

Gerard was the hometown police detective who busted Kimble in the first place, and who was handcuffed to the alleged wife-killer during the train wreck that set him free.  Though he had no special jurisdiction over recapturing Kimble, Gerard would drop everything and hop on a plane anytime word of a Kimble sighting came in over the teletype.  When Dr. Kimble saw Gerard sniffing around on his trail, he knew he was in really deep shit that week. 

The Fugitive was a show I gorged myself on during my teens, and it was my first real exposure to Morse.  Since then I’ve seen a lot more of his early television work, and what I’ll bet a lot of people don’t realize is how much of a departure the character of Gerard was for Morse, at least at that time. 

Catch one of Morse’s pre-Fugitive TV roles, and more than likely you’re in for a heavy meal of ham.  Most of the time, Morse went big.  Maybe because Morse was British by birth and Canadian by inclination – he resettled in Toronto in 1951 and did so much live TV they called him “the CBC test pattern” – American television didn’t know quite what to do with him.  For much of the early sixties, he was typed within a pretty narrow specialty: bohemian artists and snooty critics. 

Morse is pretty hard to take as Fitzgerald Fortune, a theatre critic who tortures people with a haunted player piano, in “A Piano in the House,” one of those generic Twilight Zones in which some mean little man yaps for the whole half-hour about how he’s going to avenge the gigantic chip on his shoulder.  He’s even more insufferable in “Who’ll Dig the Graves,” a Defenders in which he chomps the scenery as an alcoholic, junkie beatnik poet.  Classically trained (at RADA), Morse was a natural choice whenever some showoffy writer had dressed up a thesaurus as a character, as in the Nurses episode “A Private Room.”  Somehow, in the execution of Morse’s performance as Oliver Norton Bell, a misanthropic failed scholar dying of leukemia, the actor and his director, Don Richardson, came to the ill-advised conclusion that Bell’s each and every line should be barked at full volume.

Morse’s other early specialty was accents: English, German (as a defector scientist in another Nurses, “Escape Route”), or simply nondescript Euro-generic.  I think it’s supposed to be French in the maladroit Alfred Hitchcock Hour, “A Tangled Web,” in which a toupeed Morse attempts a flamboyant hairdresser whose, er, business partner is Robert Redford.  One element of the say-what? twist ending is that Morse’s character isn’t as gay as he’s coded to be; in any case, it’s the nadir of Morse’s over-the-top eccentric period.

If you know Morse only as Philip Gerard, it’s hard to imagine him in these roles.  But Stirling Silliphant’s earnestly Freudian Naked City, which used Morse thrice between 1961-62, began to see him in the same way The Fugitive would.  In “Portrait of a Painter,” about William Shatner’s homicidal non-representational artist, Morse whirls through in a cameo as an art dealer called in by the cops (with a straight face) to scrutinize Shatner’s canvases and advise as to whether he’s crackers or not.  Later Morse starred in Abram S. Ginnes’ complex “Memory of a Red Trolley Car,” as a chemistry professor whose exposure to a deadly poison sends him on a journey of self-exploration, confronting mother, mistress, and estranged wife.  It was a difficult role, requiring Morse to verbalize a lot of emotions that would logically have remained subtextual, and he executed it with simplicity and integrity.  (It helped that the script incorporated Morse’s own background as an Americanized Englishman.)  In both segments Morse got a lot of mileage out of the same thick-rimmed glasses that would become an essential prop for Lt. Gerard.

Gerard: As I write this, I’m watching “Never Wave Goodbye” again.  It’s a two-parter, the first Fugitive to give Gerard a personal story parallel to Kimble’s.  Look at Gerard’s opening scene, where he gets a lead on a one-armed ex-con (not the right one, it turns out) in L.A. and soft-soaps his boss (Paul Birch as Captain Carpenter) into letting him go have a look.  Morse plays it down to practically nothing, all soft-spoken and reasonable-sounding.  He had no way of knowing the series would last for four years, but he leaves himself room to build to the fever pitch Gerard would hit before the end.  “Never Wave” gives him the character’s first crescendo, the first time he squares his jaw and bails on a fishing trip with his son to go chase Kimble; the first time he barges into some out-of-town police station and starts barking orders at slack-jawed local cops.  The first glimpse of Supercop.  Or, no: more.  Worse.

Because, here’s the point I wanted to make about Barry Morse.  I think he may deserve more credit than anybody else for the element of The Fugitive that’s truly subversive: the anti-police subtext that made it a counterculture totem.  Morse’s Gerard represented American television’s first sustained presentation of the police as essentially maleficent.  A lot has been made of how the network oafs all turned down Roy Huggins’ pitch for the show because (no matter how slowly Huggins talked as he explained that Kimble was innocent) they didn’t get how a criminal could be a hero and a cop could be the bad guy.  Fine, but that idea was coming anyhow, with the Watts riots and Kent State only a few years away from the evening news.  It was Morse who made the ugliness of the police visceral, with his clamp-jawed sneer and his thousand-yard stare.  Morse underlined the fact that it was personal for Gerard.  He wasn’t a dutiful flatfoot.  He was an authority figure whose omnipotence had been flouted, and he wanted payback

To put Morse’s contribution in perspective, just consider how much tamer The Fugitive would have been with a stolid, conventional cop actor – like, say Tige Andrews, The Mod Squad‘s Captain Greer – in the Gerard role, someone who would’ve played it like he was the hero.  Gerard actually had lines like that all the time – modest-sounding dialogue about how he was just a tool of the law, and it wasn’t his problem whether Kimble was guilty or innocent – but the way Morse said them, you knew he was full of it.  The sixties were when we first realized that some cops beat people up just because they got off on it; and that often the police function, not to punish the guilty or protect the innocent, but to suppress those who challenge the status quo.  (Gerard’s catechism was “The law said Kimble is guilty.  I enforce the law.”)  On its face The Fugitive was never this topical – not even close – but Morse’s performance smuggled the idea in.

“Never Wave Goodbye” was also the first episode in which Gerard went rogue (he jumped ship in a little rubber raft after a coast guard skipper wouldn’t continue pursuing Kimble in a thick fog), and from then on you can pick any episode and find Morse personifying some new wrinkle in martial arrogance.  A few weeks later, in the great “Nightmare at Northoak,” the one where Gerard is even haunting Kimble in his dreams, Gerard crashes town to pick up the fugitive after he saves some kids from a burning bus.  Kimble is the local hero and the small town folk all loathe the condescending Lt. Gerard.  Morse plays it totally oblivious.  “Now, look, son, you have nothing to be ashamed of,” he says to the little boy who got Kimble captured, just oozing smugness. 

As the show went on, Morse built on this notion, turning the character more tight-lipped and tightly-wound, more short-tempered and monomaniacal.  Stephen King wrote about it in his intro to Ed Robertson’s Fugitive companion book, how Morse made it possible to track Gerard’s progression, in King’s words, “further and further into freako land.”  The idea was always there in the premise – The Fugitive was what TV writers used to call a “haircut” of Les Miserables – but I’m convinced that without an actor as intelligent as Morse in the role, someone to recognize and emphasize the connection to Hugo’s Javert, the show’s anti-authoritarian strain would have evaporated.  No one else could have built it in as subtly, and who would have fought to jam it in at the surface?  Not Quinn Martin, and not ABC.

Even Morse’s physicality was a kind of innovation.  He didn’t look like any movie or TV cop that came before him.  With his small frame and slighly outsized head, his receding hairline (with the odd, birdlike tufts in the back), Morse seemed more like an accountant or an academic than a tough guy.  And the actor cultivated that look.  Morse told Ed Robertson that, during the shooting of the Fugitive pilot, he chucked the cliche wardrobe (trenchcoat and fedora) that the costumers dug up for Gerard behind a bush and stuck to off-the-rack suits for the rest of the series.  Gerard was an unprepossessing figure, a quotidian cop, and that tied into the show’s concept of law enforcement as a malevolent force cloaked in a bland guise.  The Fugitive took care to identify Gerard as a quintessentially American character, a suburban dad and wife, and that mythology became part of the nightmare.  Gerard takes his son hunting, and the kid runs into Kimble and ends up bonding with him instead (in “Nemesis”); later Gerard’s wife, explicitly cracking up because of his obsession, leaves him and almost falls into Kimble’s arms too (in “Landscape With Running Figures”).  And Morse plays this baroque material with a stiff upper lip: his Gerard, his übercop, doesn’t have the imagination to do anything but nurse his wounded pride and wait for his day of vengeance.

Which never comes.  It’s a tribute to Morse that he hovered over The Fugitive as an ominous presence even though he only appeared in about a third of the 120 episodes (plus the weekly opening title sequence).  He was sufficiently formidable to personify the relentless presence of law enforcement even as the producers kept him off-screen enough so that Gerard didn’t become a joke, always tripping over Kimble just as Gilligan was always almost getting off the island.  The big payoff in the final episode was not Kimble’s exoneration, which didn’t even happen on-screen, but the final encounter between Janssen and Morse.  An anti-climax?  You be the judge.

In the late nineties I knew a video entrepreneur who recorded Morse introducing some Fugitive episodes for a VHS release.  He told me that Morse (by all accounts a thoroughly nice man) was not well and despondent over the loss of his beloved wife, so I was surprised that he lived as long as he did.  He used his final years well, completing an autobiography that I hear is worthwhile and a cute video promo for it. 

If there’s an afterlife for TV characters, then Richard Kimble’s just got a lot more complicated.  He’ll be looking over his shoulder again after a long breather . . . but then again, he’s got some company for the long, lonely journey now.

That thousand yard stare (from “Nightmare at Northoak”).

morse-nightmare-at-northoak.jpg

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7 Responses to “The Day the Running Finally Stopped: Barry Morse (1918-2008)”

  1. Anthony Says:

    A thorough and interesting retrospective of perhaps one of the most underrated actors in show business. I don’t agree with everything you talk about, but certainly what you say about Morse’s work on The Fugitive is right on the mark. In his memoir, Barry talks about that ill-fated release of The Fugitive to video, which actually happened a number of years prior to his wife’s death in 1999. He personally organized the shooting of the introductions in Toronto, on a production sound stage with union crews, who all donated their time to the preparation of some two dozen of these pieces. Barry waived any personal compensation and the producers were supposed to donate a percentage of proceeds to the Performing Arts Lodges of Canada, a charitable organization. The producers never lived up to their side of the agreement and this episode is one of few times in the book where Barry shows righteous indignation and anger.

  2. Robert Says:

    While Anthony is absolutely correct to point out the true story behind the introductions to “The Fugitive” releases on VHS, I feel compelled to add that the company was called Nu-Ventures and your acquaintance/friend, who ran it (it was a pair of brothers, as I recall) was a crook and a liar!
    Barry sought legal advice about suing them, but realized it would cost more in legal fees than the charity – the Performing Arts Lodges of Canada – would ever see, so he abandoned the idea.

    Additionally, Barry’s wife Sydney died in 1999 – years after those intros were filmed, and Barry continued on in generally excellent health for the remainder of his life – all of which is contrary to what you were told.

    As to the remainder of your blog, I take strong exception. You open by praising Barry as “inimitable”, which by my dictionary definition means “surpassing imitation” or “matchless” – certain praise, indeed! But you then go on an extended critical tirade against a number of his performances. Amongst other things, you snidely disregard “Space: 1999″ and its fans as “less discriminating”, his pre-Fugitive roles as “a heavy meal of ham”, call him “pretty hard to take” in “The Twilight Zone”, “insufferable” and “chomps the scenery” in “The Defenders”, “over the top” in Hitchcock’s “A Tangled Web” (where you also criticize his accent)…

    You even go on to criticize the man himself as having a “slightly outsized head” and “odd bird-like tufts” of hair.

    And regarding “The Fugitive”, you are absolutely wrong in your interpretation of Barry’s intent with Inspector Gerard. Of course, you are free to interpret it any way you choose, but Barry himself considered Gerard to purely be an instrument of the law. It was not a personal hunt for him at all – Gerard was the cold letter of the law. Barry played it with a clamped jaw, yes, and Gerard was obsessive about his task, certainly, but Barry respected the role of a police officer upholding the law. It was never a personal vendetta!

    This blog entry is not so much a tribute to Barry Morse as a hatchet-piece… apart from your mis-guided interpretation and fawning over “The Fugitive”.

    I hope you decide to read Barry’s theatrical memoir “Remember with Advantages” – you’ll find his thoughts on “The Fugitive”, especially, enlightening.

    • Alan Grossman Says:

      I find it interesting how the first names of the commentors here coincidentally share the first names of the co-authors of the late Mr. Morse’s memoirs. It might have reminded Mr. Morse of statements he made to me in the past, and it certainly would have made the authors seem much more professional, had I ever been contacted about my side of the story regarding the 1991-1996 VHS releases of “The Fugitive,” and the agreement between Nu Ventures Video and the Performing Arts Lodges of Canada, Mr. Morse’s designated charity. For the record, Nu Ventures Video spent considerable funds promoting both Mr. Morse’s charity and the video releases. We even licensed LaserDisc rights to the first five “Fugitive Anthology Series” volumes to Image Entertainment, and received a grand total of about $46.00 in royalties for those rights. That’s it. As for the VHS releases, Nu Ventures went out of business in 1996 millions of dollars in debt. My family lost everything, and I mean everything, including my parents’ home of close to 50 years. We also lost my 14 year old nephew to a hit-and-run drunk driver during that time. It was all too much for my parents and brother to bear, and they are now all deceased. I spent well over a decade caring for them all, putting my own life and career aspirations on hold. Prior to the end of Nu Ventures Video, I made Mr. Morse fully aware of Nu Ventures’ financial plight both verbally and in writing, and he told me several times that he understood, and that he hoped, that at some point in the future, P.A.L.C. would receive some compensation. If I can ever get back on my feet financially, this is still a personal goal of mine. Even though those old contracts expired years ago, I have never forgotten about P.A.L.C. Never. It saddens me to think that Mr. Morse might have died possibly hating me for something he knew I did my level best to rectify. Nu Ventures Video was mislead, or flat-out lied to, by studios, actors, video wholesalers, cable shopping channels, and by major retail chains. It was always up against long odds, with no financial institutions willing to loan it money, simply because it was an entertainment company. Despite my best efforts, and 17-18 hour workdays, six to seven days each week, Nu Ventures Video never made any money. It was a money pit. Everyday, I wish it had all gone so differently. If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t. Still, it seems that it is very easy for some people who not only weren’t there, but didn’t even bother to ask, to throw stones, and to verbally castigate people they do not know, as if I, or anybody, connected to Nu Ventures Video, ever harmed them personally. As for finding me, despite it all, I have maintained the Nu Ventures Video P.O. Box since 1990. So those authors have no excuse at all for never trying to find me. Had they, or Mr. Morse, chosen to contact me again after 1996, I would have replied. I never once hid from Mr. Morse, and I never once did not take a call from him, or fail to reply to any one of his letters. I plan to close the post office box in 2014, no later than the end of June. After that, should they still care, they could always try that new-fangled invention they might have heard of called “Google.”

  3. Stephen Bowie Says:

    I’m not really all that surprised to see my ambivalent (but mostly admiring) take on Morse’s work branded a “hatchet job,” because loyalty to our favorite performers is a natural impulse. It’s also one that I believe should be interrogated. Too often our responses to an actor stop as soon as we decide we like them or don’t. Few artists always work at the top of their form, and I think it’s natural for critics to have an easier time sorting out the good and bad work of a writer or director (whom we never experience “in the flesh”) than an actor (for whom it’s natural to form an instinctive bias, either positive or negative). But actors make choices (particularly those who, like Morse, take a fairly intellectual approach to their craft) and it’s a critic’s responsibility to evaluate those choices. In Morse’s case, I found many of his decisions (on Naked City and The Fugitive, for instance) to be extraordinarily savvy, and others to be less effective.

    Robert is shrewd to point out that Morse would likely have disagreed with my take on his Gerard character, as well as that of Stephen King (who goes even further than I go, calling Gerard psychotic where I’d probably just stop at obsessive), which is something I was reminded of when I perused Ed Robertson’s book before writing that piece. Of course, I shouldn’t need to point out that Morse’s take on his character (or any artist’s view of his or her own creation) is hardly the only supportable interpretation. Good actors playing villains often approach those characters as if they’re sympathetic or at least understandable, so it’s no surprise to realize that Morse thought of Gerard as essentially a good cop – even though, if you study The Fugitive closely, it’s clear that Gerard’s actions were depicted as a persecution of a specific individual which ran counter to the spirit of the law. (Consider all the scenes where Gerard’s boss Captain Carpenter urged him to give up pursuit of Kimble and focus on the unsolved cases that were actually his responsibility.) It’s the results that matter: Morse’s feeling that Gerard was an “instrument of the law” led him to underplay the role in a way that made Gerard a far more original (and scarier) creation than if he had interpreted the character as a raving maniac.

    As for the VHS Fugitive release, this information about the bad relationship between Morse and NuVentures is new to me, and quite interesting. There was indeed a gap of some years between when those intros were taped and when I discussed them with the source I mentioned, and in neglecting to point that out I seem to have amplified any possible inaccuracies in what I was told.


  4. [...] dead body.  Then he was convicted of her murder.  Then he found himself on the run with a psychotic nutjob vowing to send him to the death [...]

  5. Benzadmiral Says:

    I haven’t seen all that many “Fugitive” episodes as a grownup (when I was a kid, it was Must-See TV for my mother every Tuesday night). The ones I’ve seen have been superb. I’m not sure I have the same take on Lt. Gerard as you or Stephen King. The quintessential Gerard moment, I think, comes in an episode where a TV reporter asks him, “But you found Kimble guilty.” Gerard fixes him with a steely gaze and says in a voice that drips ice: “THE JURY found Kimble guilty.”


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