One Ex-Cop, Slightly Used: ‘Harry O: The Complete First Season’

Who is Harry O? That’s Harry Orwell, a former police lieutenant who retired from the force after taking a bullet near his spine. So he became a private investigator who lives in a beachfront house and endlessly attempts to repair his fishing boat, called The Answer. Its beached hulk rests existentially before him, never completed, more symbolic than seaworthy. Most of the early episodes begin and end with Harry walking ruefully on that beach in his shorts and windbreaker, the surf sloshing at his ankles.

Orwell is played, or rather embodied, by David Janssen, a TV star most famous for his previous series Richard Diamond, Private Eye and The Fugitive. Harry’s style consists of furrowing his brow, hunching his shoulders, scowling at his shoes, and delivering acerbic comments in a gravel voice. In other words, he makes a good Los Angeles gumshoe in the mode of Sam Spade, or more closely his later avatar, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. For inexplicable reasons, every svelte young honey who crosses his path seems to find him irresistable, reminding us that this is television.

Orwell was created by Howard Rodman, a veteran TV writer best known for the gritty copy show, Naked City. Various sources claim that Warner Brothers asked him to come up with a character similar to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. Orwell is a very perverse fulfillment of that assignment, as can be gathered from this Season One collection, 22 episodes that aired on ABC in the 1974-75 season. Rodman has stated that his inspiration was a scene of a weary salesman trudging up a hill in Nathaniel West’s novel The Day of the Locust, and this series is certainly closer to that.

The first 14 episodes (or 13 if you count the two-part “Forty Reasons to Kill” as one) are produced by Robert E. Thompson under executive producer Jerry Thorpe. They feature mostly mediocre plots undermined by an unfortunate (network-dictated?) tendency to resolve the stories by having Harry rush into some dangerous, unlikely, and gratuitous rescue in the last act to prove his credentials as an action hero.

The rest of the show works against that impulse, beginning with opening credits that emphasize the limping Harry getting winded when he tries to run up stairs. Harry mostly eschews firearms because he doesn’t like ’em. (So much for Dirty Harry.) In a ploy to reduce car chases, Harry’s ancient little Austin Healy spends most of its time in the shop or stalled on the road, requiring Harry to use the bus. Nevertheless, the writers manage to get around this several times to shoehorn in a chase, anyway. Some chases are mildly interesting and left intriguingly unscored by composer Billy Goldenberg, who otherwise mixes melancholy strains with the ominous, the mildly sunny, and the modestly funky.

As an example of the show’s schizophrenic straining at the leash, take “Coinage of the Realm”, from writer Elroy Schwartz and the show’s main director, Richard Lang. It’s a solid premise with intriguing characters: A woman (Joan Darling) hires Harry to find her mising husband (Kenneth Mars) because their preternaturally composed daughter needs a kidney transplant. Her husband is hiding in a seaside carnival because he witnessed a mob hit, and he seems to be a non-affective type that today would probably be identified as having Asperger’s syndrome. Harry is followed by a neat young duo of light-hearted assassins (David Dukes and Granville Van Dusen) who are brazenly coded as homosexual lovers, even though nobody ever comes out and says it. They make bitchy remarks about decanting the wine and staining the leather sofa.

This is good material, even surprisingly so. Then why does the ending want us to believe that these seasoned pros would stand in the middle of the street at high noon to mow down Harry, the better for him to ambush them into a shoot-out with police? Because the people won’t be satisfied without action, man, no matter how far-fetched. Even when overlooking a lot of conveniences and implausibilites along the way, the endings often let the team down. By the way, Harry gets shot an awful lot in this series. Good thing it’s never serious.

The best of these early episodes are the aforementioned two-parter, written by Stephen Kandel and directed by Darryl Duke, which unfurls carefully with many character sketches in a complicated out-of-town adventure of class, corrupt politics, crooked police, and venal capitalists worthy of Harry’s dogged shoe-leather talents and ability to take a beating. He even gets a romantic liaison (Joanna Pettet). The vicious power brokers used to play TV detectives: Broderick Crawford (Highway Patrol) and Craig Stevens (Peter Gunn).

The premiere episode is also good and sets a tonal template that the series would have done well to follow more regularly. As scripted by Rodman and directed by Thorpe, “Gertrude” finds Harry hired by a ditzy, untrustworthy client (Julie Sommars) to find her equally off-kilter brother (Les Lannom, who would return as an even more naïve character, as we’ll get to later). In between navigating the eccentricities of those he’s trying to help and inveigling his way into bureaucratic authority (the Navy), Harry uses admirable deductive powers to come to a satisfying conclusion. Even the last-minute rescue is reasonably credible and depends on the cops saving Harry’s ass.

While most of the episodes have premises whose writers seem unconvinced, a couple of outings switch it up in ways equally implausible. “Second Sight” features Stefanie Powers as a blind psychic who apparently predicts murders, and “The Last Heir” strands the cast in a desert castle with feisty Jeanette Nolan as her relatives are being bumped off. These are both scripted by Gene Thompson and directed by the illustrious John Newland, who might have been assigned these quasi-gothic twisters because of his reputation for fantasy/horror material.

Harry’s home base at this point is San Diego, where he indulges that traditional detective-show requirement: an antagonistic friendship with a contact on the local police force who yells while giving him access to files. Since Harry was formerly on the same force, this has more believability than most. The dyspeptic pigeon here is Lt. Manny Quinlan (Henry Darrow), accompanied by comic-relief Sgt. Frank Cole (Tom Atkins) and Officer Billings (David Moses).

The show took a new direction as of episode 15, “For the Love of Money”, when Buck Houghton (The Twilight Zone) and series writer Robert Dozier take over as producers, still under executive producer Thorpe. The opening credits immediately promise a more traditionally thrill-packed approach, as Harry is now presented in a montage of feverish flat-out running and driving; too bad they couldn’t also have him flying. Fortunately, this breathless flurry will prove at least partly deceptive. The story is already better, a tale of double-crossing amid the Hollywood elite written by David P. Harmon and directed by Newland.

Harry relocates, derelict boat and all, to Santa Monica so his adventures can take place in Los Angeles under the even more superciliously hostile yet grudgingly respectful rhetoric of Lt. K.C. Trench (Anthony Zerbe), accompanied by Sgt. Roberts (Paul Tulley). The razor-browed Zerbe, a positive addition to the series, won an Emmy for this role in Season Two.

Quinlan makes one more appearance to get a proper Rodman/Thorpe send-off in “Elegy for a Cop”. This episode recycles three scenes of footage from their 90-minute pilot, “Such Dust as Dreams Are Made On” (aired March 1973), including the big time-consuming motorcycle chase with Harry at his most athletic. That pilot, included as a bonus on this set, has Martin Sheen, Margot Kidder, Will Geer, Marianna Hill, Sal Mineo, Kathleen Lloyd, Mel Stewart, and a brief glimpse of Cheryl Ladd. Only Mineo, Lloyd and Stewart show up again in the revamped episode. Harry is such a swinger in this first glimpse of him, he carries on with two women. (A second pilot movie, Smile Jenny, You’re Dead from February 1974, is available separately from Warner Archive.)

Santa Monica also becomes the occasion for more eye candy, thanks to the convenience of having Harry’s neighbors be a rotating gaggle of astonishingly accommodating stewardesses, first led by Betsy (Kathrine Baumann) and then Sue Ingram (Farrah Fawcett-Majors, seemingly without make-up and very nice for it). They dart over from next door to answer his phone, cook his meals, paint his house, and lord knows what all. And just for the record, Harry’s occasionally glimpsed, exasperated African-American mechanic Roy Bardello (Mel Stewart) is replaced by Clarence (Hal Williams), whose only difference is that he’s younger and has hair. (Curiously, both actors also appear in unrelated roles as cops!)

Alas, many episodes continue to fall victim to the old conveniences, conventions, and rescues, but at least one perfect beast emerges: “Lester”, directed by Lang and scripted by longtime TV crime vet Robert C. Dennis. It introduces Lester Hodges (Les Lannom, first seen as the naïve sailor in the premiere, and also present in the bonus pilot) as a gung-ho, affect-disordered college student who dreams of being a big-time criminologist like Harry, if he can only clear himself of a pesky homicide charge or two. He grins like a goofus every time he’s arrested for murder. Lester will return periodically in Season Two.

This episode does two things exactly right. Harking back to the premiere (the similarly titled “Gertrude”), its tone balances comedy and danger in a manner that keeps the viewer surprised and entertained, and which foreshadows the best of The Rockford Files (especially the episodes where Rockford’s heels are dogged by upstart gumshoe Richie Brockelman).

The other thing, which you’d think would be easier, is that this episode sticks with the fact that Harry narrates his adventures in a style of weary, laconic philosophy. All other episodes use his narration as a device to introduce the story and bridge various sequences, yet they’re constantly showing scenes where Harry isn’t present, so that the viewer always knows much more than Harry about what’s going on and how he’s unwittingly in danger, which doesn’t quite make sense when he’s narrating. Apparently this didn’t bother anybody but it should have; it drags the show toward the conventional. Only in “Lester” do we follow everything from Harry’s point of view, so that all evidence is fairly presented to both Harry and the viewer. Okay, one early scene goes on for a minute after Harry leaves the room, but it’s not a major plot point.

Even when a plot is predictable, we get the Janssen persona, the sunny yet seedy Southern California atmosphere (shot by Robert Hoffman), and the parade of highly recognizable guest stars. Besides those mentioned, guests include Barry Sullivan, Linda Evans, Leif Erickson, Gordon Jump, Anne Archer, Laurence Luckinbill, Margaret Avery, Rosalind Cash, James McEachin, Guy Stockwell, Juliet Mills, Paul Burke, Barbara Anderson, Mike Farrell, Robert Reed (a hitman!), Whit Bissell, Sharon Farrell, Bernie Kopell, Diana Hyland, Marsha Hunt, John Rubinstein, Cab Calloway, Jim Backus, Julius Harris, Gail Strickland, Lawrence Pressman, Jack Riley, Kurt Russell, Will Kuluva, Audrey Totter, and Maureen McCormick.

Harry O is fondly remembered by TV detective fans who were alive back in the day because it was the most serious effort yet to bring ’70s TV into the literary gumshoe tradition, especially the California wing. As we have seen, this first season mixes good points (the sunny/sour attitude, the wry sarcasm) with conventional TV-script drawbacks, but on a few occasions it hits one out of the park. Those who revisit these handsomely mastered episodes may find it’s not always as good as they remember, but there’s still Season Two.

RATING 6 / 10