In addition to his great success on THE FUGITIVE, Janssen achieved a prolific output, starring in 3 other television series, and logging 44 feature films, 20 television movies, and countless other appearances, onto his resume.
He was born in Naponee, Nebraska on March 27, 1931 as David Harold Meyer.
Mother Berniece Graf had been a teenage Miss Nebraska who toured briefly as a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl during her reign. This taste of "show biz," no doubt, contributed to the failure of her first marriage to David’s Nebraska banker-father, and precipitated her move West with her son in 1938. In Los Angeles, Berniece married Eugene Janssen (hence David’s last name).
assumed the role of a self-professed “stage mother,” wishing
for her children the career that she too coveted. At his mother’s
behest, David took tap and music lessons, acted in his first film at age
13 and did local theater. But it was an athletic career that David aspired
to, excelling in basketball and track & field. A pole-vaulting accident
in his junior year of high school derailed that goal, and he defaulted back
into the acting game, perhaps reluctantly.
David had completed 20 films (and a 2-year stint in the Army) by his 25th birthday, largely thanks to his acceptance in 1951 of a contract with Universal Studios and its Talent Program. This provided invaluable training and experience, and paved the way for the break he would get soon after his term with the studio ended in 1956.
His first starring role, in the RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE TV series, began in 1957, and gave Janssen his first real notice. The show enjoyed a successful 4-year run, though the character’s one note didn't give Janssen an opportunity to flex many acting muscles.
After an attempt at a movie career in the early 1960’s, Janssen returned to television in 1963 in one of the great dramatic series of all time, THE FUGITIVE. Janssen achieved celebrity status and gained much respect for his sensitive, layered portrayal of a doctor-on-the-run, falsely accused of his wife’s murder.
10-year marriage to Janssen’s
real-life wife, Ellie Graham, unraveled in 1968, a year after the end of
the hit series. He was once again trying to mount a career on the big screen
- no easy feat for
an actor who now, by virtue of his television successes, was indelibly associated
with the small one.
Janssen seemed to get co-starring roles in respectable pictures but his starring
roles were limited to “B” movie fare. His high-profile divorce
proceedings and romance with actress Rosemary
Forsyth seemed to get him more
ink than his professional achievements at the decade’s end.
In the 1970’s, Janssen bounced around quite randomly in movies, TV films, and series television and had one memorable success: the title role in the two-season TV series HARRY O. As private detective Harry Orwell, he was handed a well-written character, which allowed him to show an endearing, more casual side on-screen. It was perhaps his "last hurrah."
For in this same decade, his reputation as a workaholic and as a man who lived a little too hard after-hours started to visibly take its toll. Despite finding love again (he married fellow Universal Talent School student and longtime friend Dani Crayne Greco in 1975), he seemed to age rapidly in successive roles.
On February 13, 1980, he was 2 days into filming the title role in a TV film FATHER DAMIEN, THE LEPER PRIEST. In the early morning hours, Janssen suffered a heart attack and died at his beach house in Malibu in the presence of his wife. He was a month shy of his 49th birthday.
David Janssen enjoyed a reputation as both a consummate professional and as a great guy to work with. He was extremely well-liked up and down the "food chain" of his industry, from the creative elite, to the crew “worker-bee” ranks.
Known for having a quick wit, his sense of humor unfortunately was seldom utilized to its full potential on-screen. His "life-of-the-party" public persona masked a more private side - that of an autodidact who read voraciously and enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of a select coterie of smart friends. He dabbled in songwriting, photography, plane and racehorse ownership, and a variety of other interests in his short life.
This website contains a wealth of information about David Janssen's life and career but is very much a work-in-progress. Any factual or anecdotal contributions, especially from his acquaintances in the Hollywood community, would be welcomed and appreciated.