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I’ve talked about The Fugitive before in this blog as one of my favorite classic TV shows.
It was something new for TV at the time, and like anything new and successful it inspired attempts to replicate its premise. One of the least heralded and least successful was The Immortal, which debuted with a pilot movie in 1970 and was canceled after just 15 episodes.
Surprisingly it’s out on DVD. I bought it with the expectation that even if the show were bad, there would be enough ‘70s TV touches to enhance the viewing experience. And they were all there – homes with bright red and blue carpeting, boat-like sedans from the glory days of Detroit steel, and banks of beeping super-computers with blinking lights and spinning reels.
The Immortal opens on the private plane of an arrogant jerk of a millionaire named Jordan Braddock (Barry Sullivan), and his hot young trophy wife (Jessica Walter). Electrical trouble downs the plane, and Braddock is not expected to survive, an outcome that upsets neither his wife nor his doctor (Ralph Bellamy):
Doctor: “How much will you inherit?”
Wife: “25 million – and I’m worth all of it.”
But Braddock not only survives, he begins to look and feel younger.
His baffled physician wonders if that miraculous transformation was caused by the blood transfusion Braddock received, and tracks down the donor. That would be Ben Richards (Christopher George), an automotive test driver who works for one of Braddock’s companies.
After running tests, he discovers that Ben’s blood gives him immunity to every illness and disease, including old age. Because of a “chance meeting of the right genes,” he will likely live hundreds of years. The doctor then tells him, “If word of your existence should leak out, your life would be over.”
Sure enough, when Braddock discovers what happened, he has Richards tossed into a security-monitored enclosure beneath his estate, so he can get another transfusion when needed. But Richards escapes – and the chase is on.
In the episodes that followed, the reasons this series did not work as well as The Fugitive become immediately apparent. First, there is no clear end game for Ben Richards’ plight. Where Dr. Richard Kimble searched for the one-armed man, Richards just ran because he didn’t want to be used as some millionaire’s personal blood bank. A few episodes reference Ben searching for his brother, who may have the same rare blood – but even in the show where he believes he’s found him (“My Brother’s Keeper”), he doesn’t specify what they should do next.
Another problem – my guess is a lot of viewers looked at the bargain Braddock initially offers as pretty tempting – live rent-free in beautiful surroundings, have all your needs catered to, and enjoy a life of pleasure and leisure, in exchange for a pint of blood once a month.
Ben finds that arrangement odious; as he says in the show’s opening credits, “Everything they’re offering me I don’t want. I gotta live free.” Well, okay, but if the cops catch Kimble he’s headed back to death row. If Richards is nabbed, his punishment is…a comfortable villa and the best of everything? Poor guy.
And what about all of the other people he could help? Terminal cancer patients, kids with life-threatening illnesses, people with diabetes, heart disease, lung disease – should his desire to live free trump his ability to save countless lives? He couldn’t find one honest doctor who could find a way to replicate his immunity?
Next criticism – Braddock only appears in one more episode (“To the Gods Alone”). Richards’ new pursuer is Arthur Maitland (David Brian), another wealthy tycoon who wants to live forever. He barely registers as a character.
Playing the Lt. Gerard role is Don Knight as Fletcher, whom Maitland dispatches to find Richards wherever he runs.
The Immortal has no interest in exposition: each episode opens with Richards in a new place, and then Fletcher and his goons turn up to capture him. How do they keep finding him? At least on The Fugitive there were “Wanted” posters on Kimble in every police station and post office, so viewers could understand how it would be difficult for him to remain at large.
Last but not least, there is Christopher George, who does not elicit the same viewer empathy that David Janssen did on The Fugitive. Where Janssen convincingly conveys the pain and desperation of his solitary existence, George just seems mildly miffed. I’ve always liked George in The Rat Patrol, and he was great as a detective on the take in the Police Story episode “Cop In the Middle.” But here he can’t do much with a poorly developed character.
All that said, there were some positives. The Immortal offers more action than The Fugitive, usually in the form of car chases and fist fights. Christopher George isn’t quite Robert Conrad in The Wild, Wild West, but he performs a lot of the physical aspects of the role and throws a mean right cross.
Guest stars help to elevate some of the average episodes – Sherry Jackson in “Sylvia,” Vic Morrow as a corrupt small town sheriff in “The Rainbow Butcher,” and George’s wife Lynda Day George as a computer expert hired by Maitland to track down Ben Richards in “Man On a Punched Card.”
But out of 15 episodes I found only one I’d rate as excellent. “Paradise Bay” has Richards driving into a town that seems deserted. Eventually a few people turn up, including Howard Duff as a local bigwig, and they all want Ben to leave as soon as possible - willingly or not.
Tisha Sterling, one of those actresses that always stands out to me whether she’s in Batman, Get Smart or Columbo, plays a dual role as twin sisters: one the practical manager of the town’s only motel, the other a free-spirited beachcomber traumatized after accidentally killing a man who might be Ben’s brother.
There are TV fans that seek out short-lived rarities like The Immortal, and I’m sure they’re delighted to have this chance to see it again, or for the first time. But those who just want to watch a smart, suspenseful and entertaining series, I’d recommend looking elsewhere. Purchase or pass? This time it’s a pass.