Roy Huggins

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The Independent Online

Roy Huggins, writer, producer and director: born Litelle, Washington 18 July 1914; twice married (four sons, one daughter); died Santa Monica, California 3 April 2002.

One of America's top television producers, Roy Huggins was remarkable for defying Hollywood convention and debunking myths. He showed a talent for making programmes that were irreverent, self-deprecating and featured characters who often survived on the margins of society.

In the Western series Maverick, which catapulted James Garner to fame as the wisecracking, card-playing Texan Bret Maverick, Huggins made no attempt to compete with the many others of that genre that were flooding the market in television's Golden Age. "I wasn't able to get stories out of conventional westerns," he said. "They just didn't fit." Instead, Huggins made western versions of the classics, from Shakespeare's Othello to Robert Louis Stevenson's The Wrecker. "The secret is to take them in the spirit of larcenous affection instead of with awe and trepidation," he explained.

The result was a spoof on internationally successful series such as Gunsmoke and, later, Bonanza, and it became a world-wide hit itself. It was the beginning of a successful career for one of the first writer-producers to emerge after television production switched from New York to Hollywood in the 1950s. A pioneer of filmed drama on the small screen, he went on to create two of its most successful dramas, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files.

Born in Litelle, Washington, in 1914, Huggins developed his interest in writing while working as a civilian employee of the US government during the Second World War. Inspired by the books of Raymond Chandler, he penned crime fiction. His first novel, Double Take, was published in 1946 and, when Columbia Pictures bought the rights to turn it into a film, I Love Trouble (1948), he was hired to adapt it.

Although he had by then written further novels, Huggins concentrated on screenplays, becoming a contract writer for Columbia and RKO on pictures such as Hangman's Knot (which he also directed, starring Randolph Scott, in 1952), then a staff writer with Columbia.

His career was threatened when, in 1952, he was charged with membership of the Communist Party. But, in front of Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, Huggins testified that he had joined the Party as a stand against the rise of Fascism but left it after the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in August 1939. He named 21 other Party members and was allowed to continue his work in Hollywood. Later, as a producer, he used blacklisted writers on some of his programmes.

He switched from films to television in 1955, when he joined Warner Brothers to produce King's Row (1955-56). After creating the series, he worked on Cheyenne (1956), saving the initially ailing programme by assigning it scripts recycled from from Warner Brothers films such as Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Starring Clint Walker as a drifting loner wandering around the frontier, it became the company's first television success.

The producer's golden touch meant that he was swiftly moved on to the drama anthology series Conflict (1956-57), where he met James Garner. On being asked by Warner to create a new programme, he tailored Maverick (1957-58) round the actor, making him a flawed anti-hero in the Old West. Huggins provided Maverick's writers and directors with a "Ten Point Guide to Happiness", which included:

In the traditional western story, the situation is always serious but never hopeless. In a Maverick story, the situation is always hopeless but never serious.

With this send-up series, which won an Emmy Award for Best Western (1958), Huggins scored one of American television's biggest successes; it was revived in a popular 1994 film version starring Mel Gibson, with Garner returning to play a marshal.

Huggins brought Warner a further hit with the humorous crime drama 77 Sunset Strip (1958), loosely based on his own 1949 novel Lovely Lady, Pity Me, but worked on only the pilot episode. Refused a share in the profits from Warner Brothers' three most successful series, for which he was responsible, Huggins left the company.

After a short-lived job at Twentieth Century-Fox, he wrote a six-page idea for a television drama about a man wrongly convicted of his wife's murder who goes on the run in an attempt to find her killer and escape the death penalty. Inspired by Victor Hugo's Les Misérables and a real-life case in America, the programme became The Fugitive (1963-67) after Huggins sold the format to ABC, which brought in the producer Quinn Martin to make the series.

Its unrelenting tension and a dramatic, two-part finale in which Dr Richard Kimble (David Janssen) confronts the one-armed killer made it compelling viewing around the world. Indeed, it was watched by more people than any other programme until the shooting of J.R. Ewing in Dallas 13 years later. (So fondly remembered was the 120-episode drama that a feature-film remake, starring Harrison Ford, was released in 1993. Huggins also served as executive producer on a new television version of The Fugitive, in 2000.)

Meanwhile, over 17 years at Universal (1963-80), Huggins produced series such as The Virginian, before creating with Glenn Larson the tongue-in-cheek Alias Smith and Jones (1971-73), about two bank robbers trying to go straight. "The series deals with characters of the West and in the West," explained Huggins, "but, in reality, it is not a western but, rather, adventures full of humour that unfold in saloons between bandits and gunfighters."

The producer's most successful series at Universal was The Rockford Files (1974-75), a high point in television private-eye dramas. After sketching out the programme idea, Huggins brought in the writer Stephen J. Cannell, who broke all the rules of small-screen detective series in the way that its creator had done with Maverick. The star of that series, James Garner, was reunited with Huggins to play Jim Rockford – who operated from a mobile home parked on a beach – in detective stories that were exceptionally well plotted but equally character-driven. Huggins produced the first two series.

He went on to make mini-series such as Captains and the Kings (1976) and Arthur Hailey's Wheels (1978). Although he retired from Universal in 1980 to concentrate on writing, he returned to television as executive producer of the detective series Hunter (1985-88).

Of more than 300 scripts that Huggins wrote, some – including those for Alias Smith and Jones, The Rockford Files and Hunter – were penned under the pseudonym John Thomas James, the names of the three sons from his second marriage, to the former actress Adele Mara.

Anthony Hayward

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