This week’s critique of the 1975 TV tie-in novel Harry O, in August West’s Vintage Hard-boiled Reads blog, reminded me of how much I enjoyed watching the 1974-1976 ABC-TV series on which it’s based. As some of you older Rap Sheet readers may recall, Harry O starred David Janssen (previously the peripatetic protagonist of The Fugitive) as Harry Orwell, a cop turned private eye in San Diego, California, a compassionate character more in line with Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer than some of the other, tougher sleuths who were popular on American TV screens during the 1970s. As Janssen told Francis Murphy, TV critic for the Portland Oregonian, in 1974:
Harry Orwell is a dropout private detective who lives in a small beachfront house on a disability pension, which sometimes slows him down a bit. ... He’s building a boat in his back yard. He gets a haircut when he feels like it, wears a suit he’s had for 20 years which he gets cleaned occasionally.By the end of the first season, Orwell had moved his boat and business to other beachfront digs in Santa Monica (apparently as a result of higher production costs in San Diego), and had traded in his original police contact, Lieutenant Manny Quinlan (Henry Darrow), for Lieutenant K.C. Trench (Anthony Zerbe). He had even acquired a curvaceous neighbor-cum-girlfriend, airline stewardess Sue Ingham (Farrah Fawcett-Majors), and repossessed his broken-down sports car, so could stop taking buses to meet prospective clients. But the tone of the series didn’t change. Orwell was an often irritable guy, who took nobody’s shit and, despite being impecunious as hell, rarely avoided helping somebody in real trouble. Together with James Garner’s The Rockford Files, Harry O ranks as one of the top two P.I series ever shown on television.
He has a bullet in his spine from his days on the police force, so he does a lot of stretching and groaning getting out of bed in the morning, something that comes to me naturally.
His base will be San Diego, which hasn’t been photographed much. It’s virgin territory as far as TV cameras go. He’s not an affluent man, so he won’t be traveling much. I like the role and I like the people involved in it.
The video clips I have embedded here should remind fans of Janssen’s too-short-lived show what it was like. At the top of this post you’ll find the series’ original main title sequence, taken from its first regular episode, “Gertrude” (September 12, 1974). The rather haunting theme music was composed by Billy Goldenberg, but was later re-recorded with a harder edge. The clip featured below is the opening scene from “Smile Jenny, You’re Dead,” the two-hour, second Harry O pilot film, which co-starred actress-singer Andrea Marcovicci and a then very young Jodie Foster. (An earlier, one-hour pilot, titled “Such Dust as Dreams Are Made On” and featuring Martin Sheen, was broadcast in March 1973, but failed to impress ABC programming execs.)
That Harry O is still not available in DVD format is a crime, if you want to know my opinion. (UPDATE: The complete first season of Harry O was finally released on DVD in July 2012.)
READ MORE: “Oh, Harry O!” by Robert K. Lewis (Criminal Element). And Mystery*File contributor Michael Shonk has put together a fine series of posts about Harry O; check out these links: “Harry O: ‘Gertrude,’” “Harry O in San Diego,” “Harry O--Season 1, Part 2,” “Harry O--Season 2, Part 1,” and “Harry O--Season 2, Part 2 (1976)”; “DVD Spotlight: David Janssen as ‘Harry O’,” by Rick 29 (Classic Film and TV Café).