Thursday, October 6, 2016

'O' for Overlooked - Harry O

Charlie’s Angels was pitched to ABC as “Harry’s Angels.” The network requested a name change to avoid confusion with another ABC series, Harry O. Forty years later everyone still knows Charlie’s Angels, but Harry O has been largely forgotten outside of classic TV circles.

That’s unfortunate because the show holds up, even if it didn’t invest enough trust in its original premise. Given the series’ strengths, starting with David Janssen as the title character, that flaw is not fatal but it is disappointing.

After starring in one of television’s most iconic shows, Janssen seemed unfazed by the challenge of headlining another series. Four years after Dr. Richard Kimble was exonerated in The Fugitive, Janssen was back on TV in the Jack Webb-produced O’Hara, U.S. Treasury. There is an inherent stiffness to Webb shows that can be effective, but not with an expressive actor like Janssen. It was canceled after one season.

Harry O (1973-1976), launched the following year, was a better fit for its star and a better show all around, though it lasted just one more season than its predecessor. 

As originally conceived, it’s about Harry Orwell, a private investigator in San Diego formerly with the police department. He took a bullet in the line of duty that lodged in his spine, which forced his retirement and left him in constant pain.

As anyone who watched The Fugitive can attest, Janssen does “constant pain” really well.

Orwell lives on the beach, works on his dilapidated boat, and takes the bus to get around the city when he has a case. For help he turns to old friends on the force, especially Lt. Manny Quinlan (Henry Darrow). 

Perhaps the world-weariness of someone that beaten down by life was a little too close to Kimble, so in the latter half of its first season, the series switched things up. The setting changed from San Diego to Los Angeles. That meant goodbye to reliable TV character actor Henry Darrow, and hello to another reliable TV character actor in Anthony Zerbe, playing Lt. Trench. 

Harry's beater of a car also became (slightly) more reliable, so no more bus rides. And his nagging injury must have miraculously healed because it was never mentioned again.

All of these changes did not make the show better. The early episodes are more atmospheric, as Harry takes on cases that delve into the dark side of life in idyllic southern California. “The Admiral’s Daughter” has the always down-and-out looking detective sifting through suspects at an opulent yacht club. Guest-star Diana Ewing will break your heart in “Shadows at Noon” as a woman committed to a mental institution by the family that wants her inheritance.

The series’ tone and setting also helped to separate it from the glut of detective shows in the 1970s, especially as there are only so many plots to go around in the genre.

That said, Harry O survived the reboot better than most shows might have, and even gained one memorable asset in Harry’s L.A. neighbor, played by Farrah Fawcett. A lighter side of the character emerges, though Harry remains a cynic at heart. 

The scenes at the police station pick up as well, as Harry is much more of a smartass to Trench, whose exasperated exclamations of “Or-well!” are reminiscent of how Jerry Seinfeld addressed Newman. But the show never gets too quippy, and two episodes launched with startling murders of supporting characters are very serious business.

There’s an added appeal for Fugitive fans, of course, not just in seeing Janssen back on TV but also in watching for all of the guest stars from that classic series that appear on Harry O. Kurt Russell, who as a teenager had played Lt. Philip Gerard’s son, appears ten years later in “Double Jeopardy” as a witness to a murder who becomes a target of the same killer. Joanna Pettet, who had a doomed romance with Dr. Kimble in “Shadow of the Swan,” has an equally doomed romance with Harry in “40 Reasons to Kill.”

Harry O was not a hit in either incarnation, hence its cancellation after 44 episodes. But it’s also proof that yesterday’s also-rans are more appealing than many of today’s most successful shows. Both seasons are available on DVD and highly recommended. 


  1. Um, how would Quinn Martin, who produced "The Fugitive," have produced "Harry O"?

  2. A great tribute to the series. And I want to see HARRY O, but the DVDs are among the highest priced for a classic TV series (on Amazon today they're at $42.98 for each season, so $85.96 for the series, not including pilot movie!). I just can't understand why it's so high. Here's hoping there will be a price drop so fans of David Janssen can at last see this series (and dare I dream of a release of O'Hara, US Treasury?). Thanks for stirring up good memories and kindling hopes!

  3. Ironically, HARRY O was cancelled to make way for CHARLIE'S ANGELS. DJ swore off weekly tv after.

  4. I remember this show for just one scene. Robert Reed appeared on an episode where, if I recall correctly, his character was shot to death. I thought that was a horrible way for Mr. Brady to go. Of course Mr. Reed had an even more challenging role (which I've read about but never seen) where he played a man seeking a sex change operation on MEDICAL CENTER.