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David Janssen & The Swiss Conspiracy

by Susan King 

David Janssen, best remembered as Dr. Richard Kimble on ABC’s landmark 1963-67 series “The Fugitive,” once described the type of movie roles he essayed while under contract to Universal in the 1950s, “I played an ‘agreer.’ The star would say, ‘Don’t you think so.’ I’d agree with him and disappear from the picture.” 

He certainly was more than an “agreer” in the U.S./West German thriller “The Swiss Conspiracy”,” which opened in Europe in 1976 and in the U.S. the following year. Janssen is front and center in the suspense-filled production playing an American investigator living in Switzerland hired by a powerful bank prez (Ray Milland) to discover who is blackmailing his clients. The bank is also the victim with the main blackmailer wanting to be paid in uncut diamonds. “Swiss Conspiracy” also stars Senta Berger, Elke Sommer, John Ireland and John Saxon, who literally devours the scenery whole in his over-the-top performance. Jack Arnold, an Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated director best known for 1954’s “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” directed; it was to be his final film. 

“Swiss Conspiracy” has been beautifully restored-scanned in 4K from 35mm archival elements by Film Masters and is arriving Feb. 20th on Blu-Ray and DVD. Author/podcast Daniel Budnik and filmmaker Rob Kelly provide the commentary track. Two featurettes look at the career of Arnold. 

Though “Swiss Conspiracy” is a lot of fun, it’s not the type of film that would have changed Janssen’s feature film career. Though he was movie star handsome, Janssen’s big-screen career never really took off. The L.A. Times noted that TV critics cited Janssen, along with James Arness and James Garner, as knowing how to “use the small screen." As one critic put it, Janssen was “an actor able to create a sense of character through the rhythm of his speech, the way he cocked his head or shrugged his shoulders, an actor alert to all the minute physical and vocal maneuvers that define our ordinary individuality.”

He excelled in playing “gentle, tentative heroes, perfect for television in the 1960s and 70s, but perhaps not quite right for motion pictures. While TV brought him fame and fortune, Janssen’s motion picture career was far less distinguished. “

But it would have been interesting to see what would have happened to his film career, had a little more luck gone his way. Janssen landed three high-profile films as the starring role, but events conspired against him. He had been in the running to star opposite Liz Taylor in 1960’s “Butterfield 8,” but the lost out to Taylor’s latest husband, Eddie Fisher. His schedule for “The Fugitive” prevented him from starring with Doris Day in 1966’s “The Glass Bottom Boat” as well; Rod Taylor, who appeared with Day in 1965’s “Do Not Disturb,” ended up as the love interest. And Janssen auditioned to play Nicky Arnstein in 1968’s “Funny Girl” — Variety even reported he won the role opposite Barbra Streisand — but producers went with Omar Sharif. Let’s face it, It’s hard to imagine the rugged Janssen comfortable wearing Nicky’s ruffled shirt. Instead, Janssen ended up in John Wayne’s 1968 derided pro-Vietnam War epic, “The Green Berets.”

Janssen was signed to Twentieth Century Fox at 18, but they weren’t happy with his hairline and his Clark Gable-ish big ears — supposedly he believed he was Gable’s illegitimate son. It’s possible. His mother Berniece was a looker — a former Miss Nebraska, Ziegfeld girl and eventually the ultimate stage mother. 

“Like a lot of mothers, she wants to live vicariously through her children, but it won’t work,” Janssen said when he was 47. 

When Fox dropped him, he was signed to Universal where he made 32 films. But his first big break came on the small screen when actor/producer/director Dick Powell cast him in “Richard Diamond: Private Detective” in 1957. Powell starred in the radio version, which like the TV series, was created by Blake Edwards. A young Mary Tyler Moore played his receptionist Sam; her face is never revealed.

After making several ho-hum feature films, Janssen became a TV superstar in 1963 in ABC’s The Fugitive” as the caring, happily married doctor accused of murdering his beloved wife, who Kimble (Janssen) insists was killed by a one-armed man. After he escapes, Kimble searches for the true killer while Lt. Gerard (Barry More) searches for him. Janssen received three Emmy nominations and the series won outstanding dramatic series in 1966. The highly publicized two-part finale gripped the nation when the one-armed man is killed by Gerard. Some 78 million people watched “Tuesday, Aug. 29th; the day the running stopped.”

Janssen made several features of varying quality after “The Fugitive” including 1968’s “The Shoes of the Fisherman” and 1969’s “Marooned.”

He returned to TV in 1971 in Jack Webb’s “O’Hara U.S. Treasury” which lasted one season because Webb took away all Janssen’s charm. “Jack Webb marches to a drummer that is not my drummer,” he said. 

Though it ran for only two seasons, Janssen was much more in his element in ABC’s 1974-76 “Harry-O”as a former San Diego cop who is shot in the back and forced to retire. The world-weary Harry Orwell became a private detective who took buses to his cases. 

The L.A. Times reflected that “Janssen was almost the perfect TV hero.” As Harry, “He was TV’s top detective, a knight errant with a bad back, a man who would rather walk the beach on a foggy morning than fight his way through the complexities of the human condition. But his contemplative life was always interrupted by a lovely woman, a hard-luck kid or a good friend who needed his help.”

Janssen was well-loved in Hollywood. Linda Evans remarked “I never met anyone who didn't adore David. To this day I still miss that guy; he was one of a kind.” Angie Dickinson, who starred with Janssen in the 1977 TV movie “A Sensitive Passionate Man,” currently on Film Masters’ YouTube channel, related that he was “a great gentleman, a great date, and a great love.”

He was a voracious reader, a songwriter and mensche of the first order. Unfortunately, he had a long four pack a day smoking habit and was more than fond of alcohol. And Janssen was a work-a-holic. I have always considered myself basically unemployed,” he noted as to why he didn’t turn down jobs.” I'm from Nebraska and I feel guilty when I'm not working.”

Janssen did tell People, though, in 1979 that it was “harder and harder to get up in the morning. I'm suddenly feeling more and more tired every day. I might prefer the life of a film producer: Get up at ten, have two-hour lunch breaks, fire everybody in the afternoon, and be ready for cocktails at 4:30 PM.”

He was only 48 when he died of a massive heart attack at his Malibu home on Feb. 13, 1980. The autopsy revealed major blockage in three main heart arteries 

Hollywood was in shock. So much shock that his good friend Richard Harris sat in the snow outside a New York cathedral when he heard the news.


We certainly miss David Janssen and will always wonder about the films and TV shows that could have been.


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