May 04, 1989 12:00 PM

He was dramatic TV’s first superstar, a moody, low-voltage coil of an actor who magnetized viewers no matter what he was in or when it was on. Perhaps only he could have turned a highly dubious idea—a series about a convicted wife-killer—into a runaway smash. In The Fugitive, David Janssen played a wrongly jailed doctor who escapes to search for a one-armed man seen leaving his home the night of his wife’s slaying. From 1963 to 1967 the show ruled its time slot, and the chase went on. Hollywood lavished its royal treatment on The Fugitives star. Janssen had a custom-made trailer complete with library and a covey of attendants (one assigned to keep him sober), and he pulled down $4.5 million a year. His weekly, hour-long agonies led critics to liken the show to Les Misérables. Some 30 million people watched the final, much ballyhooed segment in which the one-armed man was at last caught. That audience is still rated the third biggest for any series episode, behind the last M *A *S *H and “Who Shot J.R.?” on Dallas. Yet Janssen never could succeed in movies. There was something about his lopsided, weary smile, the vague slouch, the voice full of light gravel and the eyes that had looked far into sadness that struck deepest on small screens. There they worked a tragic magic not seen before or since: Janssen was TV’s only existential success.

David Harold Meyer was born into showbiz in Naponee, Nebr., the son of a former Ziegfeld girl. He won a baby contest at six months, made his film debut at 15 with Sonja Henie in It’s a Pleasure and was signed by Universal for 32 forgettable films. In 1957 Dick Powell was preparing a TV version of his radio serial Richard Diamond, Private Detective and had decided against repeating the role (“I can’t hold my stomach in for 39 weeks,” he said). Janssen got the part, and the show’s success was the first sign of his power. Another was a reputation, still remembered, as a hard-boozing ladies’ man who smoked four packs of cigarettes a day. “I had no obligations,” he said of the time between his two marriages. “Except to my own pleasure.”

Having tasted Fugitive glory, Janssen worked and played even harder to keep it. He made features, TV movies and more series, including Harry O, with its tailor-made-for-Janssen, world-weary detective. “Working in TV is like making love to a gorilla,” he once said. “You don’t stop when you want to stop; you stop when the gorilla wants to stop.” The gorilla never got its say: On Feb. 13, 1980 Janssen, 49 and still a star, was stopped by a heart attack. “He was a good man and a bad boy,” director Richard Lang eulogized. “God, was he fun.”

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