Here’s how good the TV detective genre was from the late ’60s to the mid-’70s: Series that in other eras would’ve been hailed as television at its best were just par for the course back then, and in some cases they’ve been almost forgotten. Harry O ran for two seasons on ABC—from 1974 to 1976—and won an Edgar Award for Best Television Episode and an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor, but the show was never a huge hit, and when ABC president Fred Silverman decided to take the network in a more escapist direction, Harry O got the ax, leaving behind too few episodes to make much of a ripple in syndication. And that’s a shame, because Harry O can stand with the likes of Mannix, Columbo, and The Rockford Files as superior ’70s TV gumshoe-ing.
The Fugitive star David Janssen played Harry Orwell, a retired cop who supplements his disability check—earned at the price of a bullet lodged next to his spine—by working as a private investigator. The 22 episodes on Warner Archive’s Harry O: The Complete First Season MOD DVD set reveal a show trying to find its way. The hero was based in San Diego at first, then moved to Los Angeles. (In the real world, the reason was to save on production costs; on the show, the move was acknowledged, but not too much was made of it.) Harry lost one liaison on the force, a snippy smart-ass played by Henry Darrow, and gained another, even more officious one, played by Anthony Zerbe, who won the show’s lone Emmy. Harry also picked up a college-aged protégé, played by Les Lannom, and a flirty neighbor, played by Farrah Fawcett-Majors—whose Charlie’s Angels was one of those Silverman “fun” shows that drove Harry O off the air.
What never changed—blessedly—was Janssen’s performance as the gravelly, sharp-witted shamus. Because this was the ’70s, Harry O stretched credulity by having its sour-faced, over-the-hill hero be a champ with the ladies; and because this was TV, it set him against a parade of familiar faces, such as Kurt Russell, Jim Backus, Bernie Kopell, and Maureen McCormick. But the content of Harry O hewed very close to classic film noir and detective novels, from the rich details of how crimes are committed (and solved) to Janssen’s punchy voiceover narration. And the tone was set by Janssen, who played Harry as a reticent, obstinate, practical guy, prone to save a buck by taking the bus to an investigation, and more likely to sit quietly and size an opponent up rather than make threats or use force. Harry O wasn’t a one-of-a-kind show—there were dozens of smart, character-driven detective shows in the mid-’70s—but Janssen was a one-of-a-kind actor, and Harry O is as significant to his legacy as The Fugitive.
Key features: The original 1973 pilot movie, “Such Dust As Dreams Are Made On,” featuring a young Martin Sheen, a very young Margot Kidder, and a not-so-young Sal Mineo. (Footage from this movie was later repurposed for the season one episode “Elegy For A Cop.”)