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Sheppard case didn't inspire TV series

Thursday, February 24, 2000

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Every news story coming out of the third Sam Sheppard trial contains the same fascinating sentence: Sheppard's case inspired "The Fugitive" television series and movie.

The only problem with the claim, says "Fugitive" creator Roy Huggins, is that it's false.

"I invented 'The Fugitive' in 1960, and I had never heard of Sam Sheppard," said Huggins, an 85-year-old screenwriter and novelist, who lives in Los Angeles.

"I don't care whether people say 'The Fugitive' was based on the Sheppard case. The only reason I deny it is that it happens to be the truth."

Over the years, Huggins has occasionally protested the bald claim that his story was Sheppard's story. He publicly argued his case six years ago, after "The Fugitive" movie was released, but few have listened.

The numerous similarities between the fictional "Fugitive" and Sheppard are purely coincidences, Huggins said.

Sheppard, an osteopathic surgeon, was convicted in 1954 in Cleveland of murdering his pregnant wife, Marilyn. He said she was killed by a bushy-haired intruder who knocked him out when he ran to help her.

Sheppard's case was called the trial of the century. It dominated newspapers in the 1950s the way O.J. Simpson's case did in the '90s.

Even so, Huggins insists that he was oblivious to it.

He said Sheppard's case didn't attract much attention in his home state of California until F. Lee Bailey became Sheppard's lawyer in 1961. "I never even knew about Sheppard until Bailey began representing him," Huggins said in an interview last week.

At least a year before then, Huggins said, he had created the hero and plot for his "Fugitive" series, which he sold to ABC.

Huggins' protagonist was Dr. Richard Kimble, a well-respected pediatrician. Like Sheppard, Kimble said his wife was murdered by an intruder.

Huggins initially planned to make the villain a man with red hair. But he found that characteristic too common. So, in a flash of television brilliance, he rewrote his story to create a more mysterious intruder -- the one-armed man.

On the series, which ran from 1963 to 1967, Kimble, played by David Janssen, was tried, convicted and sentenced to execution, only to be freed in a train wreck while on the way to the death house.

That script essentially was followed in the 1993 "Fugitive" movie, which starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Kimble.

Unlike Kimble, who ran for his life, Sheppard was never on the lam. He served 10 years in prison, which today is the basis for a lawsuit arguing that he was innocent and wrongfully incarcerated.

Huggins said the many Westerns he had created, including "Maverick," were his real inspiration for "The Fugitive."

"I was tired of doing Westerns, but I wanted to do a series about a hero who moved about the country in the nature of the mythic American cowboy. But how do you do that in a contemporary way? I decided it had to be a story about an innocent man wanted for a capital crime."

After mulling his story line, Huggins said, he decided to make the central character a doctor.

"I could envision times when my fugitive would be disguised as a carpenter, but would have to reveal his doctor skills because of his essential humanity. That's suspenseful. Plus, people like doctors."

On television, Kimble crisscrossed the country a dozen times, trying to find the one-armed man so he could prove his innocence. When the series began, Dr. Sam Sheppard was incarcerated in Ohio.

After being convicted of second-degree murder in 1954, Sheppard was sentenced to life in the state penitentiary. Freed on appeal in 1964, he was retried two years after that and acquitted. Even so, police and prosecutors in Cleveland continue to this day to insist that he was guilty.

Sheppard -- broke, alcoholic and still maintaining that a bushy-haired burglar had killed his wife -- died in 1970.

Now a civil trial is under way in Cleveland over whether Sheppard should be declared innocent of the murder. A declaration of innocence -- a different and higher standard than a not guilty verdict -- would allow Sheppard's son, now 52 years old, to seek monetary damages from Ohio for wrongfully imprisoning his father.

The son, Sam Reese Sheppard, is building his case for his father's innocence on DNA. He says the genetic fingerprinting shows that an intruder's blood was left in the bedroom where his mother was bludgeoned to death.

The trial is expected to run another five weeks.

The younger Sheppard and F. Lee Bailey both remain convinced that the case was the foundation of "The Fugitive." Bailey first made his claim in his 1971 book "The Defense Never Rests." It has been widely repeated since.

Huggins, who still receives residuals and other payments for the television series and movie, said people will just have to believe him when he says he wrote "The Fugitive" with no knowledge of the Sheppard case.

He pointed out that the series even had to be altered after the first few episodes were broadcast with an embarrassing error.

Those early shows had depicted Dr. Kimble as a resident of Wisconsin. But somebody in ABC's standards and practices department then remembered that there was no death penalty in Wisconsin, so it would be impossible for Kimble to be running for his life.

"The producers just up and switched things by suddenly saying Kimble was from Indiana," Huggins said. "Later, Indiana got rid of the death penalty, too, but nobody cared by then."

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