F. Lee Bailey says 'Fugitive' was Sam Sheppard

August 07, 1993|By Arnie Rosenberg | Arnie Rosenberg,Knight-Ridder News Service

CLEVELAND -- F. Lee Bailey knew the man whose case inspired "The Fugitive" television series, but he's not sure he'll venture out to see the film.

"It's not going to aid my understanding of the Sheppard case, but I'm a Harrison Ford fan," says Mr. Bailey, the celebrated attorney who won Dr. Sam Sheppard's release in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case.

Mr. Bailey calls the case "probably the greatest whodunit" in the country.

Sheppard, an osteopath, was convicted of the 1954 murder of his wife and spent 10 years and 15 days behind bars. Mr. Bailey won him a second trial and an acquittal.

The Sheppard murder case became part of modern mass-media lore in 1963, when actor David Janssen took to the tube to portray a doctor, wrongly convicted of his wife's murder, in the television series "The Fugitive."

"The David Janssen character was Sam Sheppard. I have it from the horse's mouth," said Mr. Bailey, 60, in a telephone interview from his West Palm Beach, Fla., office. "The producer of the show . . . admitted it to me."

And, he says, the intrigue and mystique that made "The Fugitive" a four-year success on the small screen (and in reruns today) is likely to make its namesake motion picture -- "The Fugitive" starring Harrison Ford -- a similar smash on the wide screen.

"I can't imagine, with the success the TV series had, that the movie isn't going to follow it pretty closely. Unless the movie disengages itself totally from the TV show, it's necessarily tied to Sheppard, because 'The Fugitive,' as a concept, was triggered by the Sheppard murder case."

In the movie, as in the television series, Dr. Richard Kimble is wrongly convicted of killing his wife, Helen. He escapes from custody and pursues a bushy-haired "one-armed man," whom he saw leaving his house the night of the murder.

"There was a bushy-headed man, I'm convinced," Mr. Bailey said of Sheppard's claim that he saw a bushy-headed man leaving his suburban Cleveland home the night his wife, Marilyn, was bludgeoned to death.

The ABC television series began a four-year run in September 1963, one year before Mr. Bailey won Sheppard's release from the Marion Correctional Institution. Sheppard watched the program "once or twice, and didn't have much interest in it," Mr. Bailey says.

Mr. Bailey remained a personal friend of Sheppard's following the acquittal. When Sheppard died of liver failure in 1970 at age 46, Mr. Bailey was a pallbearer.

Still, there's a lot to the public's 39-year fascination with the Sheppard case, Mr. Bailey says.

"The drama of a system having failed totally, in leaving an innocent man with a death sentence hanging over his head and him having to fight it . . . I think that captured everyone's attention."

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