Every Saturday, The Savvy Screener’s Boomer Box is counting down “The 50 Greatest Television Episodes of the 1960s,” in reverse chronological order, as researched and written by Todd M. Pence. (This series ran originally in the Classic 1960’s TV Facebook group.)
In the fall of 1965, Roy Huggins, the creative mind behind The Fugitive, would bring another “running man” series into America’s living rooms. NBC’s Run for Your Life starred Ben Gazzara as attorney Paul Bryan. Like The Fugitive’s Dr. Richard Kimble, Bryan would also be a character running from a death sentence – one of a much different kind.
The show began life as a segment of The Kraft Suspense Theater in the spring of ’65. Bryan visits his doctor for a routine checkup and is stunned to learn that he has a rare and terminal illness, with the prognosis being a mere 18 months of life remaining to him. Being a man with no ties and substantial means, Bryan resigns from his career and pledges to devote his final months to travelling the world, seeking out adventure and novel experiences.
Because Bryan’s fatal disease never really acted as a dramatic driving force for any of the individual episodes, the show would turn out to be more thematically like Route 66 or Then Came Bronson than The Fugitive.
Richard Kimble was constantly in danger of recapture which would have meant his execution, but Bryan’s affliction, if mentioned at all, was usually only in passing in the course of a story. Indeed, the series had a healthy three-year run, belying its initial premise. Guess Bryan’s doc was wrong.
Contrived though its setup might have been, Run for Your Life was a solid drama well worth watching. One of the most exceptional of its offerings aired during the show’s third and last season, on the last day of January 1968.
In “The Killing Scene,” Bryan learns that a man named Lou Patterson (played by Tom Skerritt) is about to be executed for a murder committed during a robbery. He has proclaimed his innocence throughout the trial and while admitting to being a member of the criminal gang, claims he was never even present at the robbery. Bryan, who had prosecuted the original case, becomes disturbed when he learns that another of the robbery participants — whose testimony was instrumental in convicting Patterson — has been committed to a mental institution and is now recanting his testimony.
Bryan visits Patterson at San Quintin. He finds the man, while still maintaining his innocence, resigned to his fate. But with just hours left before Patterson’s scheduled execution in the gas chamber, Bryan determines to do everything he can to find the truth. He learns about the existence of a mysterious man named Fletcher (Robert Duvall) who may actually be the real killer. Bryan must determine the guilt or innocence of Fletcher and make him confess if the former. It looks as if Paul Bryan will save the day in tried-and-true TV hero fashion, but the episode delivers a stunning gut punch at the end.
Directed by none other than the star of the series himself, “The Killing Scene” boasts an outstanding script from Robert Foster and Philip DeGuere. Skerritt gives one of the best guest star performances of his massive career, and Duvall . . . well, he’s Robert Duvall. The two lead guests would, of course, later co-star in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H film.
Run for Your Life would be canceled following this season. Whether at the end of his television adventures Paul Bryan finally succumbed to his illness remains a matter for speculation.
[Editor’s note: Good luck finding ‘Killing Scene’ (or the other 85 episodes of ‘Run for Your Life’) streaming or even on home video. A copy of the episode does exist, however, at the Paley Center for Media in New York and Los Angeles.]
(Top photo: ‘Kraft Suspense Theater.’ Source: YouTube video)
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