George Eckstein, a television writer and producer who co-wrote the historic final episode of “The Fugitive” TV series in the 1960s and produced the acclaimed Steven Spielberg-directed TV-movie “Duel” in the ‘70s, has died. He was 81.
Eckstein died of lung cancer Saturday at his home in Brentwood, said his daughter, Jennifer.
FOR THE RECORD:
Eckstein obituary: The obituary of television writer and producer George Eckstein in Sunday’s California section said that instead of flowers, his family asks that donations be sent to the Writers Guild. Donations should be sent to the Writers Guild Foundation. —
In a television career that began in the early 1960s, Eckstein amassed a string of credits over the next several decades.
Among them: serving as a producer on “The Name of the Game” TV series, executive producing the “Banacek” television series, producing the TV movies “Amelia Earhart” and “Tail Gunner Joe” and serving as an executive producer of the TV mini series “Masada” and “79 Park Avenue” and the television series “Love, Sidney.”
“Duel,” the suspenseful 1971 television movie that Eckstein produced starring Dennis Weaver as a motorist terrorized by the unseen driver of a tanker truck, proved to be a significant milestone in the budding career of the 24-year-old Spielberg.
“George hired me to direct his ABC Movie of the Week, ‘Duel,’ and my career was never the same,” Spielberg said in a statement. “I owe so much to him for having the courage to hire a kid to do a man’s job. George had passion for telling highly original stories and was a wonderful mentor to me and so many others. I will miss his quiet dignity.”
Within the television community, TV writer and producer Dean Hargrove said, “George was very highly regarded as a producer of great taste and innovations.”
“George was a very thoughtful, soft-spoken, extremely intelligent, very creative producer with a great dry sense of humor,” said Hargrove, who first met Eckstein at Universal about 1970 when they were producers on “The Name of the Game” and later worked with him on various other shows.
Eckstein launched his TV career as a writer on ‘60s series such as “The Untouchables,” “Dr. Kildare,” “Gunsmoke,” “Felony Squad” and “The Invaders.”
He also wrote 10 episodes of “The Fugitive,” the popular hourlong ABC drama that ran from 1963 to 1967 and starred David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble.
Falsely accused of murdering his wife, convicted and sentenced to die, Kimble managed to escape when the train he and his escort, Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse), were riding on was derailed. On the run from Gerard over the next four years, Kimble frequently changed jobs and identities as he crisscrossed the country in search of the one-armed man who actually committed the murder.
Eckstein, who also was an associate producer and a co-producer on “The Fugitive,” teamed with Michael Zagor to co-write the final two-part story, “The Judgment.”
“There were certain givens,” Eckstein recalled in a 1994 interview with the Chicago Tribune. “We knew there was no trick. The one-armed man was guilty, Kimble would confront him at some point and Gerard would have to accept the fact of Kimble’s innocence. The rest was for us to determine.”
When the final episode of “The Fugitive” aired on Aug. 29, 1967, 72% of the viewing audience watched it. It was a record for a single episode of a series that was not broken until 1980, when the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of “Dallas” drew 76% of the audience in its time period.
Before the final episode of “The Fugitive” aired, there were rumors that Gerard had killed Kimble’s wife. But that’s one twist that Eckstein never considered.
“To think that Kimble would have been on the run for all these years, desperately trying to find this one-armed man, and then you get to the last episode and say it wasn’t him? It would have been awful,” Eckstein said.
His years on “The Fugitive,” he said, were “exhilarating, a wonderful time.”
He was born in Los Angeles on May 3, 1928, and attended Beverly Hills High School. He received a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from Stanford University and a master’s in theater arts from UCLA. He also earned a law degree from USC before serving in the Army from 1953 to ’55.
Eckstein produced “The Billy Barnes Revue,” which ran on Broadway in 1959 with a cast that included Ken Berry, Bert Convy, Joyce Jameson and Ann Guilbert (Eckstein’s first wife), among others.
He worked as a casting director with Lynn Stalmaster and as a business manager before writing his first TV script for an episode of “The Untouchables” in the early ‘60s.
Among his later credits as a writer were three Perry Mason TV movies starring Raymond Burr.
Eckstein was a former board member of the Writers Guild of America. He also was afounding member and a former chairman of the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors, for which he served on its steering committee for 20 years.
In addition to his daughter Jennifer, Eckstein is survived by his wife of 41 years, actress Selette Cole; two other daughters, Nora Eckstein Sekowski and Hallie Todd Withrow; and two granddaughters.
Services will be private. Instead of flowers, his family asks that donations be sent to the Writers Guild.