Monday 3 August 2020

Harry O season one (1974)

I’ve spoken about the genesis of Harry O in my review of the two pilot episodes.

The first season falls into two distinct phases, the San Diego phase (which is superb and quirky) and the Los Angeles phase (which is more conventional but still very good).

In the first thirteen episodes of the first season Harry Orwell is based in San Diego. In mid-season the series was radically revamped.

One of the things I like about Harry Orwell as David Janssen plays him is that he’s not overly likeable. In an odd way that makes him very likeable. He’s not unpleasant but he can be very direct, occasionally in a slightly hurtful way, he can be irritable and he doesn’t go out of the way to ingratiate himself with people. So when Harry does do something considerate it’s likely to be genuine.

This was not the first private eye series to use San Diego as a setting. There was also a 1960 series called Coronado 9. It was not a commercial success but it was quite interesting and really not that bad at all. But San Diego seemed to be the kids of death for TV private eyes. Coronado 9 was a flop and the network demanded that Harry O be relocated to Los Angeles, which was a much more conventional and therefore safe setting. I think it’s rather a pity. San Diego seems like the kind of town that provides an ideal setting for a private eye series.

Harry O - the San Diego episodes

In the first thirteen episodes of the first season Harry Orwell is based in San Diego. In mid-season the series was radically revamped.

The San Diego episodes are similar in feel to the first pilot. They’re slightly darker and slightly more cynical than most private eye series of that era. Harry is grumpy and taciturn and his back troubles him a lot. Underneath he’s a nice guy but he’d hate for anyone to find that out. The stories are sometimes mildly quirky but mostly it’s Harry himself who gives the series its mildly offbeat tone. There’s also the fact that he mostly gets around by bus, with is decidedly unusual for a TV private eye. He has a car, an old British Austin-Healey sports car, but it’s hardly ever running.

A private eye has to have a contact in the police force and Harry’s contact is Lieutenant Manny Quinlan (played by Henry Darrow). Manny thinks Harry is sentimental and quixotic and exasperating. In spite of this there’s an uneasy but real friendship between the two men. It’s pretty typical of the relationships between fictional private eyes and fictional cops but Darrow and Janssen are sufficiently good actors to make it convincing.

The first episode of the Harry O series is Gertrude. It’s written by series creator Howard Rodman and it’s everything that the second pilot isn’t. Gertrude is quirky and the structure is kinda loose and the tone is whimsical with an edge of weirdness. David Janssen who had given a solid but very straightforward performance in Smile Jenny, You're Dead gives a delightfully off-kilter performance in Gertrude. Harry Orwell is bad-tempered and kind-hearted, he’s cynical but sentimental, he’s conscientious and indifferent to his work. He has a bullet in his back and he’s in constant pain but somehow he manages to regard the world with wry amusement. He is immoral but he respects Gertrude’s strict morality.

He doesn’t even know why he took this case, except that Gertrude sounded on the ’phone like an interesting eccentric and her story made no sense so it seemed like it might be interesting. Gertrude’s brother Harold has gone AWOL from the Navy but the Navy seems very very upset about it, which suggests that there’s something about the case that the Navy is keeping to itself. The only concrete clue is Harold’s left shoe. And as Harry explains in his voiceover narration, a clue is also anything that doesn’t happen the way it’s supposed to and that visit from the Shore Patrol certainly didn’t happen the way it was supposed to.

David Janssen in Harry O season one
In this episode a lot depends on the weird chemistry between David Janssen and guest star Julie Sommars (who plays Gertrude). Gertrude could easily have been merely a crazy person but there’s something about her that makes it plausible that Harry feels compelled to pay it absolutely straight with her. This is a great opening episode.

The Admiral's Lady is the wife of a retired U.S. Navy admiral and she was out on her yacht alone and is now missing presumed drowned. The admiral won’t believe that she could be dead and he hires Harry to find her. What Harry finds is another dead woman and some dirty little secrets regarding quite a few respectable wealthy married women.

There’s also the admiral to deal with. He’s a stubborn cantankerous old devil but he’s a fundamentally decent sort and Harry takes a liking to him. Harry is not sure what the truth is about the admiral’s wife but he has a fair idea the admiral’s not going to take it well.

It’s a straightforward but solid private eye plot made much more interesting by the fact that it’s about characters who are flawed and complicated but they’re people who are doing their best and they feel real. A good episode.

In Guardian at the Gates Harry gets the most obnoxious client who could possibly be imagined. Paul Sawyer is an architect and supposedly a genius. Someone has tried to poison his dog. The suspicion is that next time they might go after Sawyer himself. Who would want to kill Paul Sawyer? Every single human being who has ever met him. It seems like it’s going to be a thankless job for Harry but on the other hand Sawyer does have a pretty blonde daughter (played by Linda Evans). The plot is OK but it’s the character interactions involving the miserable old curmudgeon Sawyer, the daughter (who’s a bit weird and a bit all over the place) and Harry that make things interesting. Harry finds out what genius really means and he’s pretty happy not to be a genius. It’s a good episode.

Mortal Sin presents Harry with a tricky problem. He has this friend who’s a Catholic priest. A man confessed to murder, to the priest. The priest cannot break the Seal of the Confessional. But what about Harry? He can try to find the murderer but he’s not going to get much help from his friend the priest. The idea of the priest being unable to reveal the identity of a murderer because of his vows is not original but originality is not that important. What matters is how well the idea is handled. Here it’s handled pretty well and the main focus is Harry’s search for the killer starting out with virtually nothing to go on. It’s a pretty successful episode.

Coinage of the Realm has Harry looking for a guy called Yorkfield. Yorkfield has never been of any use to anyone in his life but now he can be of a lot of use to his daughter who needs a kidney transplant. Only problem is that a couple of hitmen are also looking for Yorkfield. In this episode Harry does the curmudgeon with a heart of gold thing but David Janssen makes it believable and does it without any phoney sentimentality. Harry’s entrance to Yorkfield’s apartment, with a fire-axe, is a nice very Harry O touch. A very good episode.

In Eyewitness Harry is hired to find out if a black kid is guilty of murder or if he’s been set up as a patsy by a rather nasty ghetto pimp. It would help if Harry could find an eyewitness. There is no eyewitness, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Not a bad episode.

In Shadows at Noon Harry is committed to a mental hospital. It was his idea. He’s trying to find out about a girl named Marilyn who turned up at his house with a story about wrongly committed to the hospital. Harry discovers that getting out of a mental hospital is a whole lot harder than getting in. And he discovers that there’s a lot more to Marilyn's story. There might even be murder. It’s a very good episode with a kid of bitter-sweet feel to it.

Ballinger's Choice has Harry hired by Margaret Ballinger women her husband Philip goes missing. It sounds to Harry like there’s another woman but Margaret is sure it’s not that. Philip turns up again but several people have turned up dead. There’s a series of nasty little emotional entanglements behind all this. There’s some pretty decent misdirection in this tale, and an interesting clue (a character reacting slightly oddly to a certain situation). There’s a chase at the end but this is Harry O so it’s not your regular car chase, it’s a boat chase. A good episode about human frailties.

Second Sight presents Harry with an apparently paranormal case. A psychiatrist tries to hire Harry as a bodyguard but the psychiatric then vanishes. A blind author with an uncanny ability to predict murders before they happen tells police where the body can be found. People involved with this author seem to either disappear or get murdered quite often. This not surprisingly makes the police rather suspicious of her and there’s also the vexed question of the nature of her blindness. It’s quite a clever if convoluted mystery plot. A good episode.

There’s nothing Harry hates more than bodyguard work and he doesn't like it any better when it’s a bodyguard job for the police which is what he’s landed with in Material Witness. He has to protect a doctor who witnessed a gangland execution and she hates cops and she’s determined to be difficult. It’s an OK plot but as always it’s David Janssen’s performance that makes it something special. A good episode.

Forty Reasons to Kill is a two-parter. A hippie gets beaten to death and a large amount of cocaine is found on the body. Lieutenant Quinlan figures, reasonably enough, that dead hippies with drugs on them are probably drug dealers. Harry knew the hippie and doesn’t agree. The investigation takes him to Vadera County. As anyone who has ever watched American television knows all American small towns are incredibly dangerous places (much more dangerous than big cities) and small town sheriffs are always corrupt psychopaths. The dead hippie was trying to buy some land from fabulously wealthy rancher Glenna Nielson. Glenna is beautiful, possibly unstable, probably dangerous. She’s the sort of woman a smart private eye keeps at arm’s length so naturally Harry falls for her. And as happens to most city folk who are unwise enough to visit small towns Harry finds himself in the local jail, charged with first degree murder. Lots of clichés in this episode and it’s all a bit routine but it’s well executed and there are some fun supporting performances from Broderick Crawford and Craig Stevens.

Accounts Balanced is a story in which we know who the bad guy is, and then again we don’t. Maybe nobody does. It starts when Harry’s ex-girlfriend hires him to check up on her husband. It seems like just another case of a husband having an affair, except for a couple of niggling little details. Another pretty solid episode.

The Last Heir is a country house murder mystery but it also owes a large debt to a certain very famous Agatha Christie story. In this case the country house is built on top of a gold mine in the middle of the desert but the principle is the same. Letty inherited the whole of her father’s fortune. Her family (two sisters and a brother plus a great-nephew and his wife) are entirely dependent upon her for money and once a year they have to travel to her house to collect their allowances and be humiliated. Letty thinks her family are trying to kill her. Her family thinks she is trying to kill them. One of them has hired Harry as protection so this time there are seven people at the annual family gathering.

In true classic murder mystery style all the cars are sabotaged and since there’s no phone they are completely cut off until the next delivery truck arrive in a week’s time. And then the corpses start to pile up. It’s a clever and devious little tale and keeps us in doubt right up to the end. Great stuff.

Harry O - the Los Angeles episodes

Midway through season one the series received a complete makeover with Harry moving to Los Angeles. The entire supporting cast was dumped and replaced by new characters.

A lot of the wonderfully quirky features of the San Diego episodes were eliminated. Harry no longer catches buses. His Austin-Healey sports car now runs most of the time. He no longer has his boat that looked like it was going to take a lifetime to restore to seaworthy condition.

On the other hand there’s still Harry himself, shuffling about in what often seems like an absent-minded haze, being cantankerous and about as unglamorous as a private eye can be. And a major plus is one of the new regular characters, Lieutenant Trench (Anthony Zerbe), a cop who looks decidedly unfriendly but is actually rather amiable. He’s a most engaging and eccentric character. He likes to give the impression that he hates private eyes and considers Harry to be one of the crosses he has to bear but it’s clear that he likes Harry and has great respect for the value of his instincts. He’s the perfect foil for Harry and their repartee is a highlight of the L.A. episodes.

There’s also his sergeant, Roberts, who hardly ever speaks. And there’s Betsy, Harry’s slightly ditzy airline stewardess neighbour who takes Harry’s ’phone calls. So while some of the surface quirkiness of the series has disappeared some of that quirkiness has crept back in in the form of slightly eccentric supporting players.

In fact the overall impression given by the L.A.episodes is that the producers were trying to placate the network by making the series seem more conventional while what they were actually doing was to make its quirkiness a bit more subtle.

For the Love of Money opens with Harry having just relocated to L.A. and now he’s been hired by a secretary who wants to return $25,000 worth of bonds she stole from her boss. But her boss says half a million is missing, and the bonds belong to his clients and they’re not insured. This episode introduces Lieutenant Trench and sets up his odd relationship with Harry.

Disappointingly Harry seems to have given up catching buses. On the other hand his personality is pretty much unchanged which is pleasing since that’s the show’s major asset. It’s a reasonably solid episode.

In The Confetti People a client, Jack Dawes, tells Harry he’s just shot and killed his artist brother Arthur. Problem is there’s no body. There seems to have been no crime but something strange is certainly going on. That artist brother seems to make a habit of getting murdered. Jack may be a little on the crazy side. And everybody involved in the case is probably lying, for an assortment of reasons. There’s something odd about some of Arthur’s paintings as well. It’s a very decent episode with plenty of amusing verbal exchanges between Harry and Lieutenant Trench.

It’s pretty much a given that any private eye series is going to include an episode centred around jazz musicians. An episode like Sound of Trumpets. Harry fishes an old black trumpet player named Art Sully out of the water. Everyone assumes Art was drunk and fell in, but he didn’t fall. Art thinks someone is trying to kill him. Everyone assumes that Art is drunk and crazy. He’s certainly drunk but maybe he isn’t crazy. Everybody has tried to help Art but they can’t but Harry is going to try anyway. In this episode Harry is back to riding buses! It’s not a bad episode, not startlingly original but it’s well executed.

In Silent Kill Harry is trying to prove that his client, a deaf-mute, is not guilty of arson. Arson that resulted in three deaths. It’s a fairly routine story and it doesn’t do anything interesting with the deaf-mute angle.

Double Jeopardy starts with a girl riding a horse on the beach. Somebody shoots her, right in front of Harry. Harry doesn’t see the actual shooting but he sees a guy making off down the beach on horseback. The guy, an aspiring actor named Todd (Kurt Russell), is the obvious suspect but the evidence is circumstantial. That's not good enough for the dead girl’s father, a former gangster. He wants his own justice. Harry will have to work fast to give Todd a chance. Harry has to come up with some clever detecting in this one but luckily he gets some help from his ditzy airline stewardess neighbour Sue (Farrah Fawcett). It’s a good episode.

Lester is an odd young man and he’s Harry’s client and he’s a suspect in a series of sex murders. Harry uncovers some evidence that could point to Lester as the criminal, but not necessarily. It’s a reasonable enough plot but the real interest here is provided by the interactions between Harry and Lester, and they’re enough to make this an intriguing episode.

In Elegy for a Cop a police officer is trying to save his junkie niece from herself and it costs him his life. Harry Orwell wants this killer really badly for very strong personal reasons (which I’m not going to mention since it’s a bit spoilerish. This episode, and it’s a good one, serves as a kind of epilogue to the San Diego era of Harry O.

Street Games has Harry trying to save a young drug addict who witnessed a murder. The girl, Nancy, is played by Maureen McCormick. Yes, Marcia Brady as a junkie. It’s a routine story but well executed. It sums up a lot of the differences between the San Diego and the LA episodes - had this one been done as an early-season San Diego episode it would certainly have been a lot darker and a lot better.

Final Thoughts

The San Diego episodes count as some of the best private eye TV ever. The LA episodes are more conventional and not as dark but on the plus side the chemistry between David Janssen and Anthony Zerbe as Lieutenant Trench provides some real zest and some real sparkle. Overall despite the mid-season change of pace season one of Harry O is good enough to be considered in the very top rank of private eye TV series. Very highly recommended.


  1. When my finances have recovered, or I win the lottery (nobody happens to know next week's numbers, do they? lol), I'll have to get this.

    The bit about moving halfway through the season almost put me off, but the idea of watching Anthony Zerbe playing a non-villain appeals to me!

    1. but the idea of watching Anthony Zerbe playing a non-villain appeals to me!

      It was definitely the rôle of his career.

      While I love the San Diego episodes the wonderful byplay between David Janssen and Anthony Zerbe actually does make the LA episodes even better. The acting chemistry between them is an absolute joy.

  2. Harry O was maddeningly difficult to find back in the 90s when I was trading VHS tapes and collecting David Janssen's appearances, but I finally landed the first 8 episodes and mostly enjoyed them. The itch scratched, I didn't worry about it for years but I pounced on the DVD sets. It's such a good show from start to finish even with the cast changes, with only a couple of episodes I didn't enjoy - like the second pilot. I wish ABC had ordered a third season, because it was a gem.

    1. I wish ABC had ordered a third season, because it was a gem.

      It's a tragedy that they didn't because there was no valid reason for cancelling the series. It was apparently rating pretty well.

  3. I recently watched all of the Harry O episodes for the first time in almost 40 years and liked most of them, with the exception of Elegy for a Cop. I had a feeling of deja vu watching it then realized most of the second half of the episode was reworked footage from the first pilot. They really went cheap on that one. Gertrude was my favorite. Very quirky and had Les Lannom in a non-Lester episode (I think he was in the pilot too). Overall I really liked this series and wish it had gone on longer.

    1. Gertrude was my favorite. Very quirky

      It's a very very good episode. That episode won me over to this series immediately.