David Janssen

Active - 1946 - 1982  |   Born - Mar 27, 1931 in Naponee, Nebraska, United States  |   Died - Feb 13, 1980   |   Genres - Drama, Thriller, Crime, Action, Mystery

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Like Clark Gable, David Janssen lost quite a few film roles in the early stages of his career because his ears were "too big" and -- also like Gable-- he did pretty well for himself in the long run. The son of a former beauty queen-cum-stage mother, Janssen was virtually strong-armed into show business, appearing as a child actor on-stage and as a juvenile performer in such films as Swamp Fire (1946). Signed to a Universal contract in 1950, he showed up fleetingly in films both big-budget (To Hell and Back) and small (Francis Goes to West Point). Full stardom eluded Janssen until 1957, when he was personally selected by actor/producer Dick Powell to star in the TV version of Powell's radio series Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Though he didn't exactly become a millionaire (for several years he earned a beggarly 750 dollars per week), Janssen's saleability soared as a result of his three-year Diamond gig, and by 1960 he was earning top billing in such Allied Artists productions as King of the Roaring 20s (1960), in which he played gambler Arnold Rothstein, and Hell to Eternity (1960). In 1963, he landed his signature role of Dr. Richard Kimble on TV's The Fugitive. For the next four years, Janssen/Kimble perambulated throughout the country in search of the "one-armed man" who committed the murder for which Kimble was sentenced to death, all the while keeping one step ahead of his dogged pursuer, Lieutenant Gerard (Barry Morse). The final episode of The Fugitive, telecast in August of 1967, was for many years the highest-rated TV episode in history. There was little Janssen could do to top that, though he continued appearing in such films as Warning Shot (1967) and Green Berets (1969), and starring in such TV series as O'Hara, U.S. Treasury (1971) and Harry O (1974-1976). David Janssen died of a sudden heart attack at age 49, not long after completing his final TV movie, City in Fear (1980).

Movie Highlights

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  • Made his (unbilled) film debut at 14 in Sonja Henie's It's a Pleasure, playing Davey, a boy referee.
  • Signed at 18 to a 20th Century Fox contract, later dropped; signed by Universal, appeared in over 30 supporting roles before his big break, starring in the TV series Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1957-60).
  • The Richard Diamond series was produced by Four Star, whose owner, Dick Powell, had played the private detective on radio (1949-52) and chose Janssen to play the role on TV.
  • Most popular role was Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive (1963-67); its final episode drew a then-record audience.
  • Tested to play Nicky Arnstein, opposite Barbra Streisand, in Funny Girl (after Streisand refused to take second billing to first choice Frank Sinatra).
  • Died of a heart attack at 48; among his pallbearers were Gene Kelly, Gregory Peck, Milton Berle, Richard Harris and Rod Stewart.