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”).