What Happened to The Fugitive?

We take a look behind the scenes of 1993’s The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford, one of the best TV-to-movie adaptations ever.

When it comes to adapting a classic TV show to the big screen, it doesn’t get much better than Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive. Indeed, the third highest-grossing film of 1993 proved to be a monumental critical and commercial hit that earned more than $370 million globally and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. In addition to Tommy Lee Jones winning an Oscar for his indelible supporting turn as U.S. Marshall Sam Gerard, the film still boasts some of the most impressive action set pieces and stunning practical FX on record. The movie succeeds on multiple levels as a riveting manhunt thriller, an engrossing murder mystery, a compelling redemption story, an FX-driven action-adventure, and of course, a faithful TV adaptation that both honors the spirit of the original and also pushes the narrative forward into daring, unpredictable territory. Yet, for as nearly perfect a film as The Fugitive remains to this day, you would never guess that the production actually had a slew of hurdles, injuries, cast and crew replacements, and other major mishaps to overcome. 

For instance, did you know that the original cinematographer was fired one week into the production? Or the fact that the movie’s villain, Dr. Charles Nichols, was actually played by a different actor before being replaced after falling ill due to a brain tumor? Or how about the on-set injuries Harrison Ford suffered while making the film on location in Chicago and North Carolina? Well, as the landmark action-packed crime drama celebrates its 30th anniversary this August, we’re about to dive into all of the little-known facts about the production and figure out just WTF Happened to The Fugitive! 

Believe it or not, Harrison Ford was not the first choice to play Dr. Richard Kimble, the revered Chicago heart surgeon who is wrongfully accused of murdering his wife in cold blood. According to MovieFone, several actors auditioned for the role of Kimble, including Alec Baldwin, Andy Garcia, Kevin Costner, Michael Douglas, Dennis Quaid, Christopher Reeve, Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Jeff Bridges, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro. At one point early in development, Walter Hill expressed interest in directing the movie with Nick Nolte in the lead role. However, Nolte declined on the grounds that he was too old to make such a demanding action movie. According to a 2023 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Harrison Ford actively sought the role because he was interested in playing characters drastically different than himself. He also had the desire to sport a heavy beard and mustache, something that became a problem for Warner Bros. chairman Robert A. Daly, who wanted Ford to show off as much of his bankable face in the movie as possible. According to Ford, “The studio was not happy with the beard. They figured they paid for the face they wanted to see, so they were concerned about that.”

It was director Andrew Davis’ idea to have Kimble start the film with a beard and shave it off, rather than wear silly disguises as the movie progresses; a brilliant decision that adds to the film’s sense of stark realism. 

Although Jeb Stuart and David Twohy are credited for the screenplay, the script took five years, nine writers, and at least 25 drafts to complete, according to producer Arnold Kopelman. Everyone from Robert Mark Kamen and David Newman to Walter Hill and David Giler worked on the script. Hill and Giler had a draft ready to shoot in 1990 with Nolte in the lead but the film was put into turnaround at Warner Bros. after roughly $2 million was spent in writer fees, where it languished until Kopelson sent the script to Harrison Ford’s agent. Not only was Ford always Kopelson’s first choice to play Kimble, but he also handpicked Andrew Davis as his first choice of director. 

Once Ford read the script and agreed to star in the film, he met with Andrew Davis after going to see Davis’ previous film Under Siege in a theater in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Ford thought the film was a solid action-adventure film and supported Kopelson’s decision to hire Davis to direct The Fugitive. As such, Ford was the first actor who signed on to the project. 

Despite the efforts to get the script in perfect shooting shape, it’s worth noting up front that much of the film’s dialogue was improvised by Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. Constant rewrites were made while the film was being shot, including the third act which had to be entirely reconceived. According to Kopelman, the original ending included Gerard in a vehicle chasing Kimble down a subway train track, which was too far-fetched and cost-prohibitive to make. 

Before Jones was cast in the part of U.S. Marshall Sam Gerard, Gene Hackman, and Jon Voight were offered the part but turned it down, while Mel Gibson was also considered. As for Kimble’s duplicitous colleague Dr. Charles Nichols, actor Richard Jordan was initially cast. Tragically, Jordan fell ill after filming a few scenes with Ford and was forced to drop out. Jordan was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumor and sadly died three weeks after the film was released. As a result of his sudden illness, Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe was cast to replace Jordan during filming, which is quite astonishing considering how believable Krabbe is in the film and what a major role he plays as the mendacious madman responsible for orchestrating the murder of Kimble’s wife. 

Speaking of last-minute replacements, it’s also worth noting that Martin Scorsese’s longtime cinematographer, the late Michael Chapman, came on board one or two weeks after principal photography already began. Chapman was hired after the originally hired DP was let go. Despite earning an Oscar nomination for his work, Chapman did not get along with Davis at all and hated his experience working on the film. According to The Fugitive: Lighting and Crashing the Train, Chapman claimed that he quoted an exorbitant fee he thought Warner Bros. would never agree to for his services. Of course, they paid Chapman the money he asked for and shipped him off to frigid Chicago and North Carolina during the winter to make the movie. According to Chapman:

“It’s one of those things…you never know. I was very unhappy. All the way through it. I didn’t get along with the director. I don’t want to go into the details of why but it was a very bad mix. It just didn’t work. And I used to say to them, ‘Look, I haven’t cashed the checks, I’ll give you the money back, just let me out of here, please, I’m begging ya.” Fortunately, Chapman remained on board until the end, crediting Davis with knowing how to capture Chicago better than he could have ever done himself. According to Chapman, “A lot of it really feels like Chicago, because it just has a native’s eye to it. That’s Andy’s, not mine. He knew where to look.”

Despite Davis making three films set in Chicago in the past, it was actually Ford’s idea to set the film in the city. Both Davis and Ford were born and raised in Chicago, and even though Davis was intent on using a different location, Ford felt the director made such good use of the city in his previous films that he insisted on setting The Fugitive there. According to Davis in The Films of Harrison Ford:

“Originally I wasn’t even going to try to come to Chicago. I thought that the weather would be too cold and difficult for shooting. But Harrison, having seen several of my prior films shot in Chicago, suggested doing it here.” 

Ford added later:

“I grew up in Chicago, went to college in Wisconsin, and came back to take summer jobs for three years. I felt this was the best possible option as a location…We could get the grittiness, we could get the flash of architecture, the charm of the lake. It has it all.” In retrospect, Chicago is such an instrumental character in the film that it’s hard to imagine the movie being set anywhere else.

Strapped with a $44 million production budget and Warner Bros. blessing, principal photography for The Fugitive commenced on February 3rd and was completed on May 15, 1993. While most of the film was shot in Chicago and rural Illinois, a large portion of the movie was filmed in North Carolina, including Jackson County, Bryson City, and the town of Dillsboro. Some scenes were also filmed in Blount County, Tennessee, according to Yahoo! Movies. 

The prison bus transport scene that occurs early in the film was shot in the Great Smoky Mountains outside of Dillsboro, North Carolina. Of course, the scene leads to the most memorable sequence in the movie – the all-time exhilarating train crash in which a locomotive slams into the prison bus after it rolls down the hill and lands on the tracks. Believe it or not, the sequence was filmed in a single take, and cost $1 million to produce. Because of the high cost, Davis had only one chance to get the shot right. As such, extensive logistical planning went into the explosive wreck, with the FX team spending weeks preparing by doing practice runs with a boxcar and log carrier. 

Although the engine had been removed, a real train car was used when it came time to film the harrowing train wreck. According to Kopelman, “We used an actual railroad. This was not miniatures. This was not trick photography.” After scouting five different states for a functional railroad that could be used for the scene, Dillsboro was chosen. Eleven cameras were strategically placed around the crash site to capture as much footage as possible during the one single chance to record the shot. It was actually cheaper and more cost-effective to use a real train (which cost $21,000) and practical FX rather than miniature models and expensive CGI, which was still in its infancy at the time. 

According to Davis, “This was in the era before digital FX were really in their forte, and we decided in general, that we would make a real train crash.” 

Co-producer Peter MacGregor-Scott came up with a method of pushing the locomotive and prison bus on the train tracks from behind in order to get speed and momentum. The tracks were engineered to split into two different directions. The driverless train was brought to a speed of 35 to 42 miles per hour and equipped with an explosive charge in the front bottom. When the train makes contact with the bus, it bursts into flames and pushes the vehicle down the track for 300 yards. All of this was done for real without a single ounce of artifice! 

The train crash actually made contact with one of the large VistaVision cameras some 40 feet away, which took over 2 hours to dig out from piles of debris. Shockingly, the footage was still intact and unharmed. The camera used to capture Kimble’s POV from inside the bus also survived the crash and continued to film for 7 or 8 minutes after the fiery explosion concluded. However, three additional cameras were completely destroyed during the blast and the footage was never retrieved much less used in the film. Even so, it’s truly one of the most remarkable and genuinely enthralling action-set pieces ever committed to celluloid. And the fact the train crash was all done in a single take is nothing short of a miracle. 

According to Kopelman, “Little did I know that this scene would become one of the greatest scenes ever filmed, for any motion picture.” MacGregor-Scott agreed, adding “I’d been dreaming about it for months and the shooting and the editing were exactly what I’d hoped for. It was more than I hoped for. It was just a spectacular moment.” Indeed, the train crash became so iconic that the Dillsboro railroad where it was filmed is now a popular tourist attraction. 

Oddly enough, it’s worth noting here that writer David Twohy’s biggest contribution to the screenplay was the train crash scene. However, Twohy never actually met Davis at any time during production. According to Davis via Mandatory.com

“I never met David Twohy. David Twohy wrote the train crash. He wasn’t involved in anything we did. Jeb Stuart was there with us…basically responding to things we were coming up with all the time…[Warner Bros.] can’t talk about this because of the Writers Guild, but Tommy Lee Jones, myself, Harrison [Ford], and other people who were close with us, especially coming up with the whole plot about the pharmaceuticals, they were uncredited writers.”

It’s true. Many of The Fugitive’s most iconic scenes and lines of dialog were often written on the spot, just hours before they were filmed. Despite the painstaking efforts to get the script in tip-top shape, the movie is laced with imperceptible improvisations. For instance, the Chicago PD interrogation of Kimble was completely ad-libbed. Ford had no idea what questions would be asked of him, and he responded off the cuff and completely in character. Again, the spontaneity adds to the realism.

Jones, who had worked with Andrew Davis in The Package and Under Siege, had a very comfortable rapport with the director by the time they worked on The Fugitive. As such, Davis completely trusted Jones to rewrite scenes on the fly and ad-lib dialogue when seen fit. For instance, the classic “I. Don’t. Bargain” line was written by Jones after deeming the original scene’s dialog flat and unconvincing. Furthermore, the pivotal moment where Gerard traps Kimble in the sewer tunnel and says “I don’t care” after Kimble declares “I didn’t kill my wife” was Jones’ idea. According to producer Roy Huggings, the original scripted line was, “That isn’t my problem.” Furthermore, Jones also came up with several humorous lines in the film himself, including the classic bit to his subordinate Newman in the woods: “Well, think me up a cup of coffee and a chocolate donut with some of those little sprinkles on top, will ya?” According to Davis, Jones wrote the oft-quoted quip on the morning the scene was filmed.

Once Kimble escapes from the train crash and dashes through the woods, Ford injured several ligaments in his knee in real life. Ford refused surgery until filming wrapped and incorporated his injury into the film. This is why Kimble is seen limping for the remainder of the film, most prominently when he’s running. 

Later, Gerard pursues Kimble through the sewer system and seemingly traps him high up on a water dam in of the movie’s most iconic moments. The scene was filmed at Cheoah Dam in Deals Gap, North Carolina. The tunnel that Gerard chases Kimble through was actually a set built by the production team with traps that could open up and let natural light pour in from above. Davis insisted on using as little artificial light as possible to maintain the movie’s verisimilitude. Meanwhile, the production only had one day to film at Cheoah Dam. As such, rather than spending weeks building a set inside the dam, the crew built a section of the set on a pivot that had the pipe and tunnel and placed it on the back of a flatbed pickup truck. The truck was placed on top of the dam and driven to the edge, rotated, and extended over the lip of the dam. This allowed Ford to stand at the edge of the dam with the real background behind him. Ford had a safety wire running down his leg that connected down to the lowest part of the sewer pipe and attached to his belt, allowing him to feel safe and comfortable enough to stand so close to the edge. Once the shot was successfully recorded, the crew simply drove the truck away from the dam and were able to leave the location without spending too much time or resources there. 

To film the shot of Kimble leaping from the dam, six dummies that cost $12,000 apiece were used, with one appearing in the long shot during the final version. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford was filmed in a swimming pool in California. Ford lunged from a diving board while wrestling with the camera underwater, a quick insert of which is used in the film to depict Kimble landing in the water. In fact, Ford was so gung-ho to do things himself that when it came time to film the ambulance escape scene, Ford did all of the driving himself with nobody but a cameraman inside with him. It speaks to how collaborative the filmmaking process was, how dedicated Ford was, and how much Davis trusted his collaborators. 

With the North Carolina locations filmed, production moved to Chicago where most of the remaining scenes were shot. In addition to Deals Gap, some of the dam scenes were shot in the Chicago freight tunnels. A major reason the film was shot on location was to make it as realistic as possible. As such, the intense chase sequence where Gerard nearly captures Kimble in City Hall was genuinely filmed in Chicago City Hall of Justice, which doubles as a police holding center in the movie. The chase ends with Gerard firing nine shots at Kimble into a bullet-proof plate of glass. For the scene, wax bullets were shot from a large air-pressure, mechanical firearm known as the Wood Abagas Trunnion Gun. The gun was placed over Gerard’s shoulder while Jones was simultaneously firing blanks from his prop gun. According to MacGregor-Scott, wax bullets were loaded into electrically charged cylinders with precise laser sights used to accurately hit the target. 

Once Kimble narrowly escapes Gerard’s bullet-laced assault, he immediately wades into the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade outside in downtown Chicago and uses the large crowd to blend in and lose the Marshalls. Believe it or not, the St. Patrick’s Day parade was not part of the script and was totally improvised on the spot. Before delving into the logistics, it’s worth noting that, to create the constant needle-in-a-haystack theme, Davis often used aerial overhead shots of the city as a visual motif to emphasize how difficult it is for Gerard and the U.S. Marshalls to find one human being in a vast sea of humanity. This idea was reinforced in the sprawling parade scene, which was filmed during the real St. Patrick’s Day celebration on March 17, 1993. 

Because the parade was not in the script or on the production schedule, a day’s worth of filming had to be done by early in the morning on March 17, 1993, so that the remainder of the time could be spent on the parade. Nothing was staged or rehearsed. The entire sequence was captured live, on the spot, using a Steadicam to follow Ford and Jones after they literally walked into the crowd of marchers without warning or preparation. According to Davis:

“It was all dependent on two things: Michael Chapman the DP had to be ready with certain camera positions and Steve St. John, who’s this incredible Steadicam operator who I’ve worked with on almost all of my movies, was able to run around in freezing cold and keep up with the foot traffic.” Indeed, the weather while filming the parade was a frigid 21 Degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill of minus 6 degrees. Even so, the effort was completed without many problems and ended up being a fun way of working for Ford and Jones. 

Given the inclement weather and vast organizational requirements, it’s a bit surprising to note that Alex Cox’s 1993 movie Blink also filmed a portion of the St. Patrick’s Day parade simultaneously with The Fugitive. According to the Chicago Film Office leader at the time, Charles Geocaris, both productions requested to use the parade in February and were granted permission. And despite both film crews working out the logistics in advance, Geocaris claims that the two film crews would often run into each other while shooting (via The Chicago Tribune). Adding to the veracity, several real-life Chicago politicians at the time appear in the parade, including Mayor Richard M. Daley and Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris. 

Additional key scenes filmed in Chicago include Kimble meeting with his old friend, Dr. Kathy Wahland, played by Jane Lynch, in County Cook Hospital. While the real CCH was used, Lynch has corroborated how much the script evolved on set. According to Lynch via People, Ford didn’t like their reunion scene as originally written and reworked the dialog together with Lynch on the spot to make it more believable. Oddly enough, the original script incorporated a romantic angle between Kimble and Wahland, although it was ultimately scrapped for time and pacing issues. It was also deemed inappropriate for Kimble to be romantically involved with another woman while trying to avenge his dead wife’s killer. 

To this effect, the reason why Julianne Moore has such prominent billing in the movie is that her character, Dr. Anne Eastman, also had a much more prominent role in the original drafts of the script. After confronting Kimble for tampering with Joel’s chart at the hospital, Kimble goes back and seeks help from the young doctor and eventually falls in love with her. Scenes involving this subplot were actually filmed but discarded from the final version. Despite her minor role in the finished film, Moore scored a role in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park: The Lost World based on her performance. Ironically, Harrison Ford turned down the original Jurassic Park to make The Fugitive. Oh, the incestuous nature of Hollywood!

Of course, it’s hard to talk about The Fugitive without mentioning the unforgettable score by James Newton Howard. While ultimately nominated for an Academy Award, Howard had a notoriously difficult time coming up with the right tone and tenor for the film, telling Consequence of Sound, “The Fugitive really kicked my ass. When I was hired for it, I was terrified.” Howard laid temp music over the film from legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith as a placeholder until he came up with an original score. However, he became so depressed over the daunting task of creating music on par with Goldsmith that he resigned to the belief the score would be a “quasi-failure.” Howard never gave up though and despite feeling as though the string instrumentation during the chase scenes, in particular, were more awkward than thrilling, he was grateful to receive such positive recognition, adding, “I was completely shocked. I just didn’t think [my score] was worthy of a nomination, but that’s often what happens. It worked, and the movie was so good. It makes everybody look better.”

One thing nobody ever talks about regarding The Fugitive is how historically fast the editorial turn-around was. Although the film took 73 days to shoot, Davis was given only 10 weeks to edit the film due to Ford’s restricted time and availability to promote the release. This meant that Davis had from May 15 to August 6, 1993, to completely lock the picture for release, including the edit, sound mix, color correction, etc. To achieve this monumental feat, Davis hired a whopping SIX editors and MacGregor-Scott secured seven editing bays at Warner Bros. Studios and began work around the clock to shape the film into what it’s become. For their superb efforts, all six editors were recognized with Oscar nominations. Most importantly, the film did not require reshoots or release delays and remained on course for its late summer theatrical release. The rest, as they say, is cinematic history!

Without droning on about the universally acclaimed post-release plaudits the film received, that’s essentially What The F*** Happened to The Fugitive. Although the film had to replace its original cinematographer and its central villain, despite Harrison Ford suffering injuries while filming, in lieu of rewriting scenes and improvising dialog on the spot, and even having only one chance to capture the breathtaking train wreck on film, none of these external factors made much of a difference in the end. Andrew Davis, Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, and the rest of the supremely talented cast and crew overcame whatever production hurdles came their way. Perhaps most impressive, the editorial manpower allowed the film to hit the masses less than three months weeks after filming wrapped. All combined, the grand gestalt of The Fugitive arguably remains the best cinematic adaptation of a television show ever made. 

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.