DVD Spotlight: David Janssen as “Harry O”

David Janssen starred as Harry Orwell in the 1970s TV crime drama Harry OGuest blogger Rick29 writes:

The DVD set includes the first of two pilot films, Such Dust as Dreams Are Made Of, which was broadcast in 1973. Martin Sheen co-stars as a former criminal who wants to hire Harry to find his ex-girlfriend and a former accomplice (Sal Mineo). Orwell has a personal interest in the case because, four years earlier, Sheen and Mineo were the culprits in a drugstore robbery that left Harry’s partner dead and a bullet in Harry’s spine. Forced to retire from the police department, Harry lives on his disability pension aboard his boat The Answer. Will Geer appears in a supporting role as a medical examiner who provides an in-depth explanation on how to make heroin. It’s unlikely Geer would have been a regular had a TV series resulted–he was still playing Grandpa on The Waltons.

A second pilot movie (not included in the DVD set), Smile Jenny, You’re Dead (featuring a 12-year-old Jodie Foster) appeared the following year. Its ratings success convinced ABC to pick up the series. Harry O premiered in September 1974 on Thursday nights at 10.  The show’s only other regular was Henry Darrow (The High Chapparal), who played Detective Lieutenant Manny Quinlan. Harry now lived in a beachfront cottage, working occasionally on his boat (still called The Answer). As he explained in one of his trademark voiceovers: “A lot of cases I won’t take. I don’t have to.”

With his car frequently being repaired, Harry takes a lot of buses–which has its advantages when being followed (“It’s hard to tail someone on a bus”). The first half of season 1 makes excellent use of its San Diego locale, highlighting both the flavor of the inner city and the stunning beaches. Even Harry emphasizes the importance of his surroundings: “You see, baseball teams win more games in their own ballpark. Now, San Diego is my ballpark. And if you name a street, I can close my eyes and tell you where the traffic lights are…that also applies to bus stops.”

The guest stars included a bevy of newcomers and familiar faces to classic TV fans: Kurt Russell; Linda Evans (between The Big Valley and Dynasty); Leif Erickson (also from The High Chapparal); Stefanie Powers; Broderick Crawford; Anne Archer; Craig Stevens (Peter Gunn); Carol Rossen (a frequent guest star with Janssen on The Fugitive); and even Cab Calloway.

Despite modest success in its time slot, Harry O underwent signficant midseason changes. The location sadly switched from San Diego to Santa Monica and Farrah Fawcett had a recurring role as Harry’s neighbor and sometime girlfriend Sue (whose Great Dane Grover wasn’t a fan of Harry’s). Anthony Zerbe replaced Henry Darrow as another police detective, although Darrow returned to give his character closure in “Elegy for a Cop,” the next-to-last episode of the first season. The opening credits were tweaked, too, and even the theme music transitioned from a bluesy arrangement to a more uptempo one.

Although Zerbe won a supporting actor Emmy for his performance in 1976, the changes had little impact on the series’ popularity. Viewers watched Harry O to see Janssen, who remained a fan favorite from his days as man-on-the-run Richard Kimble in the TV classic The Fugitive (1963-67). As Harry, Janssen replaces Kimble’s subtle intensity with a laid-back, cynical persona (though he still occasionally flashes his trademark quick smile, with one side of the mouth turned up). One senses that Harry’s casual style and humorous quips hide a darker past.

Still, some of the best episodes were the more lighthearted ones, such as “Gertrude,” with guest star Julie Sommars as a young woman whose only clue to her brother’s disappearance is a single shoe. The first season also introduced the character of Lester Hodges (Les Lannom), a young man who aspires to be a criminologist after meeting Harry. Lester appears in four episodes over the two seasons, with the last one–”Lester Hodges and Dr. Fong”–serving as a pilot for a spin-off series co-starring Keye Luke that never materialized.Harry O starring Davis Janssen

Harry O faced an uphill challenge finding a regular audience amid a landscape cluttered with popular TV detectives (e.g., The Rockford Files, Cannon, Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, and Baretta). ABC cancelled Harry O after just two seasons. Though its demise came far too early, at least it didn’t suffer the fate of overstaying its welcome. We’re left with a quirky, entertaining detective series with a character perfectly matched to its star. We can only hope that Warner Archive releases season 2 of Harry O. It’d also be nice if someone would release the only season of television’s other seldom-seen, quirky private eye series: The Outsider (1968-69) starring Darren McGavin.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!