Janssen, you’ll recall, was the star of three well-remembered American TV series: Richard Diamond, Private Eye (1957-1960), The Fugitive (1963-1967), and of course, Harry O (1974-1976). Born David Harold Meyer in Naponee, Nebraska, on this date back in 1931, he was the son of a banker and a former teenage Miss Nebraska turned Ziegfeld Follies showgirl, Berniece Graf. But his parents’ marriage didn’t last, and Janssen’s mother relocated them to Los Angeles, where Berniece eventually married a man named Eugene Janssen. With his mother’s encouragement, David began acting at age 13, and by his 25th birthday, “he had appeared in 20 films and served two years as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army,” according to Wikipedia.
He caught his first big break in the late ’50s, when longtime film actor Dick Powell, who had spent four years as the voice of ex-OSS man turned New York City private eye Richard Diamond--“radio’s singing gumshoe”--decided he didn’t want to star in a new version of Diamond for the then-young medium of television. Instead, Powell became the series’ producer and hired Janssen as its lead. As Kevin Burton Smith notes at The Thrilling Detective Web Site, TV watchers who remember Richard Diamond, Private Eye in the least often remember it best for its gimmick: the answering-service girl, Sam, who took all of Diamond’s phone calls, but whose face you never saw on-screen, only her legs. Turns out, those prize-winning gams belonged to Mary Tyler Moore.
After Diamond’s end, Janssen took a lot of other TV work, guest-starring on Death Valley Days, Checkmate, Route 66, and Naked City, before being cast as Dr. Richard Kimble, a pediatrician falsely accused of murdering his wife, in the Roy Huggins-created ABC-TV series The Fugitive. That show took a while to build up an audience, but eventually proved to be a hit, winning an Emmy Award in 1966 for Best Dramatic Series. (Janssen himself was nominated for Emmys three times during the show’s run, but lost in each case--twice to Bill Cosby, for I Spy--and was never nominated again). The Fugitive ended after four years, when Janssen declined a fifth-year contract.
Instead, he turned to movie roles, appearing in John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), a science-fiction film called Marooned (1969), and a Western called Macho Callahan (1970), in which he played a Confederate army deserter who breaks out of a prison camp and, with his old partner, goes hunting for the man who landed him in that brutal stockade. But the lure of TV series (and the money that went along with them) led Janssen back in 1971 as the star of O’Hara, United States Treasury, a Jack Webb serial that had Janssen playing a Treasury agent (“T-Man”) who traveled around the country on assignment with assorted law-enforcement agencies. As The David Janssen Archive puts it none too delicately, O’Hara is “considered to be the only stinker of the four series in which Janssen starred. It lasted one season.”
The good news was that O’Hara’s cancellation made it possible for Janssen to star three years later in one of the best private-eye series of the 1970s: Harry O. I qualify that because the ’70s was a particularly fecund period for TV P.I.s, some of them excellent (like Jim Rockford and Miles C. Banyon) and others who never should have been given a license to practice (such as Richie Brockelman and Wade Griffin). Though darker in tone than The Rockford Files, Harry O was a nice complement, the two exemplifying divergent paths taken by modern fictional gumshoes. In a piece that originally appeared in the magazine Television Chronicles, TV historian and author Ed Robertson wrote:
Harry Orwell ... wasn’t like most private eyes. He owned a car, but rode the bus because his car was often “sick.” He couldn’t run well because of a bullet lodged in his back from his days on the San Diego police force. He really didn’t have to work: while his disability pension didn’t make him rich, it afforded him a life of simple pleasures. Though he didn’t work for free, he didn’t always work for money: he once let a client pay off his fee by working on his boat, The Answer. He could also afford to work “on the house” occasionally, if he truly believed in a client, or if he somehow felt he had let the client down. Jim Rockford would never do that.However, that original, 1973 pilot film for the series was less than enthusiastically received, and it took a second (and far superior) pilot film, 1974’s Smile Jenny, You’re Dead, guest-starring Andrea Marcovicci and Clu Gulager, to sell ABC on Janssen’s often dour, cynical, and antisocial, but determined and emotionally vulnerable San Diego private eye. The series premiered in September 1974, and though it lasted only two years, it won significant critical acclaim. “Harry O is possibly TV’s only truly successful interpretation of the Chandler/Macdonald/Spillane first-person narrative,” wrote Max Allan Collins and John Javna in The Best of Crime and Detective TV (1988), while Richard Meyers, in TV Detectives (1981), calls Harry O and The Rockford Files “the finest private-eye shows ever.” I wouldn’t even think to disagree with that.
Harry O was born out of the fertile mind of Howard Rodman (Naked City, Route 66), the award-winning writer/producer of over 1,000 teleplays, screenplays and radio shows. Sometime in 1972, Warner Bros. commissioned Rodman to script a pilot based on the box office smash Dirty Harry. The studio soon learned, however, that the prolific scribe had ideas of his own. As Rodman explained in Murder on the Air (Mysterious Press, 1989), rather than re-create Clint Eastwood, he found his initial inspiration in the pages of Nathanael West’s classic novel, The Day of the Locust.
There is a page or two describing this guy walking up Sweetzer--that slope between Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevard--on a very hot day. He’s a door-to-door salesman going through bungalow courts and he’s got his jacket off, his thumb through the hanger loop holding it over his back, and his shirt is all wet ... That is the image I used to create Harry O. I mean that literally. That’s where I started.Rodman’s Orwell owned a gun, but rarely used it; he didn’t own a car at first, relying instead on the buses for transportation. He lived near the ocean--alone, but not lonely (he goes to bed with a lot of different women). Though he wasn’t particularly friendly, he was a good friend to those who knew him. He was different (for television, at least), yet he was also rooted in the tradition of the literary gumshoes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. In fact, Rodman’s title for the script, Such Dust as Dreams Are Made On, was itself an homage to the classic line from the film version of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, “This is the stuff that dreams are made on” (which screenwriter John Huston in turn cribbed from Shakespeare’s The Tempest).
Although Harry O still hasn’t made the transfer to DVD, I’ve lately been fortunate--thanks to a taped-from-TV DVD collection purchased from a Web site called Old Time Favorites--to revisit the series. I remember watching it only periodically, so many of these episodes are new to me. And I’m pleased to finally see them. Janssen lacked the flashy presentation of many TV “eyes” of the ’70s, and he could be downright grumpy at times--an obvious contrast to James Garner’s humorously self-effacing Rockford. Yet you always knew that Harry Orwell cared about the people he worked for--often at a cost to his faith in civilization’s worth or sanity. “As time went on,” Meyers remarks, “it became obvious that Harry wanted to give of himself, but he had learned never to rely on anything or anyone. His car did not work. His body did not work. ... Everything he had done in the past was for nothing. Everyone he touched seemed to get hurt.” That included his San Diego policeman friend, Lieutenant Manny Quinlan (Henry Darrow), who--in a remarkable incident, given his previous status as a regular--was shot to death at the end of the series’ first season. By then, Harry O was ranked among U.S. television’s top-20 shows.
So why was it cancelled a year later? Meyers writes that
The answer came from Anthony Zerbe [who played Los Angeles cop K.C. Trench in the series’ second season] in 1980 at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, where he was starring in Cyrano de Bergerac. David Janssen had died earlier in the year at the age of 49 [actually, 48]. When asked about the demise of the Harry O series, Zerbe responded with the story that [TV exec] Fred Silverman had just come over to ABC from CBS to “fix” the third-place network. The first thing he did was to get rid of the shows he had nothing to do with. Harry O was one of them.Janssen was soon back to guesting in TV flicks, such as Mayday at 40,000 Feet! (1976), Superdome (1978), and The Golden Gate Murders (1979). He also appeared in the anthology series Police Story and the miniseries Centennial, based on James A. Michener’s 1974 novel of the same name. According to the Internet Movie Database, Janssen’s last dramatic appearance was in a 1981 theatrical film titled Inchon, but for some reason, his scenes were deleted prior to release. He died from a sudden heart attack on February 13, 1980, six weeks shy of his 49th birthday.
There is no way of telling if Harry O would have continued to add depth to the private-eye character. All that can be said is that it was unjustly killed long before its time. It remains a monument to Janssen’s work as an actor and television detective.
Much too soon.
READ MORE: “A Star, Not Merely a Fugitive,” by J. Kingston Pierce
(The Rap Sheet).