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Producer Captures a Classic 'Fugitive' : Movies: A remake of the legendary '60s TV series is the latest in Arnold Kopelson's post-'Platoon' slate, which reflects a mix of social statement and entertainment.

July 08, 1993|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1987 "Platoon" walked off with four Oscars and proved to be a windfall for the little-known producer Arnold Kopelson.

An emigre from the world of law and finance, he had finally, it seemed, arrived. The impact, however, was fleeting. Though Kopelson had entree, getting projects off the ground was still a struggle.

"The only ones who cared about the award were the maitre d's," Kopelson says with a smile. "I get great tables. But the studios only want to know what's next."

What's next is "The Fugitive," a remake of the legendary '60s TV series scheduled for release by Warner Bros. on Aug. 6--less than a week before Kopelson's last movie, the controversial "Falling Down," comes out on video. Sitting in the screening room of his sprawling Mediterranean-style Beverly Hills home, the 58-year-old producer rolls footage of one of the more colossal train wrecks in recent memory. It is the 12th time that he has watched the scene, but his pleasure is manifest, nevertheless.

He's not alone. Audiences watching previews of "The Fugitive"--starring Harrison Ford as a surgeon accused of murdering his wife, and Tommy Lee Jones as his dogged pursuer--ranked it higher than any movie in Warner history. Ninety-seven percent rated it "excellent" or "very good," which, in this numbers-obsessed town, means the project is "hot."

Bruce Berman, president of worldwide production for Warners, is only faintly surprised. "The movie is based on a classic TV show which was based on the classic 'Les Miserables,' " he points out. "Even if you've never seen the program or heard of (its star) David Janssen, the theme of an innocent man wrongly convicted is one to which everyone can relate."

Kopelson was an ardent fan of the series, which ran from 1963-1967. But not until six years ago, when producer Keith Barish took the project with him upon his departure from Taft Communications, did the two team up and take it to Warners. Barish--an executive producer of the film--worked on the project for the first six months. Kopelson stayed with it for the next five years, relieved that Berman never pulled the plug.

Lining up Ford was a crucial piece of the puzzle. So was snagging action-director Andrew Davis, whom Kopelson approached last October after the premiere of his hit "Under Siege." Davis says: "Arnold reminds me of my Russian relatives. . . . He's very haimish ("Yiddish for loving, warm--until pushed," explains Kopelson). Though he's a wheeler-dealer with a good grasp of the business, unlike many in Hollywood, he prefers that his pictures have class and some soul."

"The Fugitive," a $40-million-plus venture, was a long time in the making--less in the production process than in the development stage. At one time, director Walter Hill was attached and Alec Baldwin a prime contender for the lead. The problem was getting a good screenplay. Seven writers tried their hand at a script that was rewritten 14 times. The dialogue was often improvised and many scenes were finalized as the cameras rolled. Kopelson admits to being "terrified."

"I went into (the 1989 concentration camp drama) 'Triumph of the Spirit' without a completed screenplay," he recalls. "I vowed never to do it again."

The challenge for the filmmakers was threefold: Condensing four years of episodic TV (and the audience's frame of reference) into a two-hour feature. Making the lead, Dr. Richard Kimble, less of an existential character on the run than a pro-active, justice-seeking hero. And converting his antagonist, federal agent Gerard, from a dour automaton into a nemesis with dimension.

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"It had to be more than a chase film, the story of a bungled burglary," says the 46-year-old Davis, who during the '60s, he admits, was too caught up in Dylan, the Beatles and the anti-war movement to watch "The Fugitive." "And since neither Harrison nor Tommy Lee nor I were familiar with the show, it made it easier to look at it with a fresh eye."

The 73-day shoot in Davis' hometown of Chicago was a handful. Actor Richard Jordan became ill and had to be replaced. Ford, in a gruelingly physical role, injured his knee during one of the falls. And the schedule was horrendous since Warners slated it as a summer film. After shooting wrapped in mid-May, seven editors and 21 assistants have been working around-the-clock to meet the deadline.

"The Fugitive" is the latest in Kopelson's post-"Platoon" slate, which reflects a mix of social statement and entertainment. Oliver Stone's Vietnam saga, the producer says, was a "watershed" experience. "Financial reward is no longer enough. I caught Oliver's passion and want, at least, some of my films to say something."

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