Monday, September 17, 2012

DVD Spotlight: David Janssen as "Harry O"

One of the most distinctive private eyes of the 1970s has finally made his DVD debut with Warner Archive's release of season 1 of Harry O. The series, which originally aired on ABC in 1974-76, starred David Janssen as Harry Orwell, a medically-retired police detective who moonlights as a private investigator. Filmed in San Diego and later Santa Monica, Harry O set itself apart from rivals with its world-weary protagonist, voice-over narration, and on-location photography. For Janssen, it marked a TV comeback after appearing in Jack Webb's glum flop O'Hara, U.S. Treasury (1971-72).

Harry spends each morning on the beach.
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 (with 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 p.m. 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."

Harry with San Diego in the background.
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."

Linda Evans pre-Dynasty.
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.

Farrah a year before
Charlie's Angels.
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.

Anthony Zerbe.
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 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-OKojak, 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 Darrin McGavin.

A review copy of this DVD was provided to the Cafe.

12 comments:

  1. Rick, "Harry O" was a series I followed during a time I didn't watch much TV at all. Really liked David Janssen's portrayal of Harry. I'd forgotten Farrah Fawcett was in the cast (but I remember the dog). I wish this one would surface on MeTV.

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    1. HARRY provides that David Janssen was a far more versatile actor than often given credit for. Harry Orwell and Richard Kimble are distinctly different characters as portrayed by Janssen.

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  2. Now if someone will get The Outsider on DVD, we will have the three great P.I. series available. Rockford is No 1, I would place Harry O second, but McGavin's show is close behind.

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    1. Randy, I too would love to see THE OUTSIDER on DVD. Haven't seen it in decades...since its original broadcast.

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  3. This was an interesting series because of David Janssen. It is not as compelling as "The Fugitive" but was worthy of watching. I liked Darrow's character (Manny) as well but can't remember Farrah Fawcett. I do think that having strong supporting characters can make the difference in a show's longevity.

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    1. Toto, I liked Henry Darrow, too. In my research, I couldn't uncover why he was written out of the series.

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    2. David Janssen and Brod Crawford...the off screen alcohol consumption and the on-screen growling of dialogue must have been something!

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  4. This show was awful visually. You could not see clearly what was going on. Bad audio as wl. A bummer all in the name of realism.

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  5. One of my all time favorite shows with my two favorite TV actors (David Janssen and Anthony Zerbe).
    With "The Fugitive" and "Harry O" being on DVD, any hope of David Janssen's other show "Richard Diamond" being released ?

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  6. I'm still discovering "The Fugitive" so "Harry-O" remains my favorite Janssen show and my favorite TV private detective. I especially like the pilot, "Smile, Jenny" and the first shows that had a more sombre, melancholy tone. It is that melancholy that made the series stand out to me, and Janssen is brilliant at capturing this quality.

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  7. From what I've heard, Darrow was dropped simply because of the locale change...it was expensive to keep filming in San Diego, so the series moved to Los Angeles. That was why a new cop was needed, and in came Zerbe.

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