If there is a hall of fame for TV detectives, the first inductee will have to be David Janssen. During the 1950s he brought Richard Diamond to television (Dick Powell created the character on radio). In the 1960s, he starred in the phenomenally popular The Fugitive, a crime series in which Janssen (as wrongly convicted Dr. Richard Kimble) was frequently cast in the role of an amateur detective. And finally, in the mid-seventies, he was wry, rumpled Harry Orwell in Harry-O, the definitive small screen translation of the Raymond Chandler/Ross MacDonald school of world-weary, not-quite-cynical, and sadly eloquent private eyes.
Harry-O is possibly TVs only truly successful interpretation of the Chandler/MacDonald/ Spillane first-person narrative. Voice-over has been done frequently—effectively in The Outsider and sometimes passably on Magnum, P.I. — but rarely well. The embarrassingly overwritten cliche-ridden Stacy Keach tough-guy voice-over of the Mike Hammer series, for example, pales next to the melancholy, reflective words of Harry Orwell, as he works on restoring a boat (The Answer) that will probably never set sail.
Harry Orwell is a former San Diego cop who caught a bullet in the back and got pensioned off the force. Still carrying the slug around, still slowed down and pained by it on occasion, he sets himself up as a private eye and lives in a beach house on the ocean; a variety of beautiful female neighbors provides pretty interludes in what is, after all, a fairly bleak, hard-drinking existence. His ex-partner is his police contact, Lt. Manny Quinlan, played to put-upon perfection by Henry Darrow.
In the second season, Orwell moves to Santa Monica, where he buys another beach house and still has a variety of beautiful airline stewardesses as neighbors, the most prominent played by a pre-Charlie’s Angels Farrah Fawcett-Majors. His police contact becomes the less-agreeable Lt. Trench, bringing the marvellous actor Anthony Zerbe to series TV for the first time. Trench gradually warms to Harry, but pretends he doesn’t.
Two particularly outstanding episodes were written by series creator Howard Rodman. The first episode (after two made-for-TV movie pilots) was Gertrude, the story of a loopy, uptight but lovable young woman (played by Julie Sommars) who enlists Harry’s help in finding her missing brother (Les Lannom) who is apparently A.W.O.L. from the Navy. The low-key humor ofJanssen/ Orwell is never better displayed, as he bounces off the self-righteous Gertrude. Directed by Jerry Thorpe (a frequent Harry-O helmer, and the show’s executive producer), Gertrude is as good as TV private-eye shows get—and better than most private-eye novels.
Rodman’s other minor masterpiece, Elegy for a Cop, has former series regular Lt. Manny Quinlan coming to LA. to bring home his runaway, drug-addict niece. Quinlan is killed, and it’s up to Harry to find his friend’s killer and salvage the niece. It was a particularly poignant episode, one of the few times on TV that a regular character has been killed off rather than simply written out—or ignored. When Harry raises a drink to Manny’s memory in the closing moments, few eyes will be dry. (Incredibly, this fine episode was cut-and-pasted from one of the two Harry-O pilot films as seamless a job as the famous Star Trek episode, another re-worked pilot, The Menagerie).
During Harry-0’s too brief two-year run, Linda Evans appeared as a love interest for Harry, and in Reflections, Felicia Farr appeared as his ex-wife – unlike most TV private eyes, Harry has a past. Les Lannom (Gertrude’s brother Harold, remember?) played a recurring role as Lester Hodges, a wealthy youth who idolized Harry and wanted to model himself after the private eye. One episode served as a pilot for a (never-produced) series featuring Lester and his Oriental criminology professor, Dr. Fong, played by Charlie Chan’s number one son, Keye Luke.
Janssen, one of the most enduring television actors, died prematurely at age forty-nine or fifty-one, depending on which newspaper you read.
Harry is puttering around his beach house; the phone is ringing the whole time.
Harry (Voice-over): “Now, where I wanted to be was Idaho Falls, Idaho, because that’s where the circus was playing that day. I would have got in my car and gone there—it was only 970 miles—but the car was in Roy Bardella’s garage getting a new muffler and the starter motor rebuilt. So I thought about that. And I thought as long as the car was there, maybe it was a good time to get new rear shocks and the brakes relined. And I was thinking about it, because I always like to think a little before I spend money. I figured I’d answer the phone if it rang eighteen times.” (Picks up phone.)
USA / ABC – Warner / 2×120 minute episodes 43×60 minute episodes / Broadcast 12 September 1974 – 12 August 1976 / Thursdays 10.00pm)
Creator: Howard Rodman / Executive Producer: Jerry Thorpe / Theme Music: Jerry Goldsmith
DAVID JANSSEN as Harry Orwell
HENRY DARROW as Det Lt Manny Quinlan (1974-75)
ANTHONY ZERBE as Lt KC Trench (1975-76)
PAUL TULLEY as Sgt Don Roberts (1975-76)
LES LANNON as Lester Hodges (1975-76)
KEYE LUKE as Dr Fong (1976)