Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Barry Morse, R.I.P.

By Mitchell

The Canadian actor Barry Morse died earlier this month and in a way it’s appropriate that we’re late getting around to writing about it, for in his most famous role Barry Morse was often arriving on the scene just a step or two behind.

Although he was an actor for over 50 years, it was as the relentless Lieutenant Philip Gerard in The Fugitive that Morse came to greatest fame. For four seasons Gerard tracked his prey, the escaped Dr. Richard Kimball, and that step or two by which he trailed Kimball would always make the difference. Gerard was a brilliant lawman, often displaying a stunning instinct for anticipating Kimball’s thinking – hardly the stereotype of the bumbling, slow-witted cop – but ultimately he would miss Kimball by just that much. With that slight advantage Kimball might form relationships with people who would then aid him in eluding Gerard, or he would slip unnoticed out of a room just as Gerard entered it, or he would snatch the last seat on a bus pulling out of town just before Gerard arrived at the station. It might be different from week to week, but it would always be something.

It may be hard to appreciate now, but The Fugitive was quite the counter-cultural program when it debuted in 1963. Sponsors and network executives alike had a real problem with the idea of the police pursuing (some might say persecuting) a man whose innocence, in the opening credits of each episode, had clearly been established. Series creator Roy Huggins recalled a programming executive at ABC who railed at “how un-American it was, how it was a slap in the face of American justice, week after week.” Indeed, the idea that an innocent man could be arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death made a great idea for a movie or dramatic special, but was a bold idea for a television series – as was the idea of having, as a series regular, a man determined to bring the innocent hero to justice, a role guaranteed to generate the ire of every viewer in America. This was the part Barry Morse played to perfection.

For, as Morse once said, the role of Lt. Gerard was "carefully designed to be disliked.” As the show increased in popularity, so did the reactions of fans. "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." Morse reveled in the reaction: “I was the most hated man in America, and I loved it.”

Gerard was hardly a one-dimensional villain, though. He constantly defended Kimball when other lawmen would attempt to implicate the doctor in various crimes. Gerard understood that Kimball was not a run-of-the-mill killer – the murder of wife, for which Kimball had been convicted, was presumed to have been a crime of passion. Nor was Gerard particularly surprised at the many acts of kindness and charity which Kimball would perform in the various cities and towns through which he passed. Kimball even became involved in Gerard’s own life from time to time, saving his lost son, befriending his troubled wife, and more than once saving Gerard from people who would want to kill him as a favor to Kimball.

It wasn’t that Gerard wasn’t grateful for Kimball’s actions, but it didn’t change what was for him the central fact of the matter: Kimball had received a fair trial and had been convicted by a jury of his peers. As an officer of the law, it was not Gerard’s job to determine Kimball’s guilt or innocence, but to carry out the decision of the court. Gerard was the anti-Oprah – a man determined not to let feelings or emotions get in the way of his duty. It may have been maddening, but there was a true dignity and nobility in the way in which Gerard did his job. It also made for great television.

As time went on, one could sense more and more that doubts were beginning to creep into Gerard’s mind. The one-armed man whom Kimball had seen fleeing the scene of his wife’s murder, a man whom Gerard had initially viewed as a figment of Kimball’s imagination, now began to appear with increasing regularity. It could be that Kimball had convinced himself this particular man (whom we learn is named Fred Johnson) was responsible for his wife’s death – or it could be that Kimball had been telling the truth all along. No matter how Gerard tried to remind himself that this was not his job, it was becoming harder for him to dismiss the possibility. Finally, in the climactic final episode, Kimball is able to persuade Gerard to give him a chance to trap Johnson and prove that he is the real killer. (One can almost sense Gerard thinking, “How did I let myself get talked into this?”) Kimball’s plan backfires – after admitting his guilt, Johnson tries to kill Kimball as well, and Gerard is forced to kill Johnson in order to save Kimball’s life. But even this is not enough for Gerard – since he didn’t hear Johnson’s confession, there still is no evidence of Kimball’s innocence. It’s only when a heretofore unknown witness to the murder steps forward and fingers Johnson that Kimball is truly cleared.

In the epilogue, as Gerard stands outside the courtroom and offers his hand to the now-exonerated Kimball to shake, it is clear that he is asking Kimball to see him as a cop who was just doing his job, that it wasn’t anything personal. And it wasn’t. There was no room for emotion, for personal feelings, in the job that Philip Gerard did, and that’s what made him a good cop. There was room for instinct and intuition though, and that’s what made him a great cop. It is also what made Barry Morse a great actor and the role of Philip Gerard one of the best in the history of television.

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