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Tuesday, September 25, 2012


David Janssen was always good at playing a character who was wounded in some way.  His celebrated portrayal of Dr. Richard Kimball in the classic TV series "The Fugitive" showed us a man perpetually devastated by his wife's murder and his exile from society after being wrongly convicted of it. And with his soulful expressions, hesitant half-smiles, and awkward body language, Janssen made us feel his pain.

On a much lighter note, HARRY O: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Warner Archive, 6-disc DVD) gives us another wounded Janssen protagonist, only this time the injury is more physical than psychological.  Former police detective Harry Orwell has been forced into retirement by a bullet lodged near his spine, and now lives in a beachfront cottage in San Diego making his living as a private detective.

But unlike the terminally ill-at-ease Dr. Kimball, "Harry O" allows David Janssen to play an amiably world-weary guy who doesn't really have to give a damn unless he feels like it.  He's amusingly grouchy but too softhearted to be a total cynic, with a kind of guarded optimism that keeps him afloat (unlike the battered boat that he's perpetually working to restore).  Those who come to him for help will find him loyal and compassionate if they deserve it, and grumpily dismissive if they don't.

The series, which ran for two seasons from 1973-76 (including two pilot movies), is rich in the kind of 70s cop-show nostalgia one expects while being a few notches above the standard Quinn Martin-type product.  Harry himself is more wistful and introspective than the usual TV cop of the era, and thanks to his physical condition he sometimes has to stop and catch his breath during an exciting chase scene.  Not only that, but with a car that spends more time in the shop than on the road, Harry often arrives at the scene of the crime by bus.

While mainly serious, a wry humor permeates the show even in its darkest moments.  Much of it is contained in Harry's gruff voiceovers ("Personally, I don't mind being tailed...if I were ashamed to be seen someplace, I wouldn't go there") while the dialogue is often laced with amusing zingers such as when Harry calls on a woman known for her psychic abilities.  "Is she expecting you?" the maid asks at the door.  "If she's psychic, she is," Harry answers.  Most of the fun comes from Harry's pleasantly abrasive relationship with Lt. Manuel "Manny" Quinlan (Henry Darrow) of the San Diego police and his rookie assistant Sgt. Frank Cole, likably played by future cult actor Tom Atkins. 

Although the writing is consistently good, much of the appeal of "Harry O" is simply the chance to hang out with these characters and enjoy watching them go through their paces along with a variety of familiar guest stars of the era.  The first regular episode, "Gertrude", is a nifty enough mystery about a highly eccentric woman whose brother is missing from the navy, but seeing the appealing Julie Sommars in the quirky title role is what makes it worth watching. 

"Coinage of the Realm" not only gives us the great Kenneth Mars (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN) but also shows that Dawn Lyn was actually a fairly promising child actress despite the idiotic "Dodie" character she played on "My Three Sons."  And speaking of child actresses, Lisa Gerritsen of "Phyllis" fame gets a surprisingly adult guest role in "Ballinger's Choice" as Paul Burke's 16-year-old lover, with Juliet Mills and Tim McIntyre also in the cast.

Episodes 11 and 12 form the season's only two-parter, "Forty Reasons to Kill", which features Joanna Pettet, Craig Stevens, and Broderick Crawford.  "The Last Heir" is a delightfully offbeat whodunnit in the Agatha Christie mold, with Harry stranded in a desert hacienda with a family of kooks trying to kill each other over an inheritance.  Jeanette Nolan is outstanding as the eccentric millionairess, with Whit Bissell and Katherine Justice lending support.

With episode 15, "For the Love of Money", comes a retooling of the series that finds Harry transported from San Diego to Santa Monica--thus losing co-star Henry Darrow, regretfully--and moving into another oceanfront abode, this time next door to a bevy of beautiful stewardesses!  (Which, not surprisingly, brightens Harry's disposition considerably.)  Billy Goldenberg's gorgeous cool-jazz musical theme is altered as well, while the opening titles sequence reflects a more action-guy persona for Harry (more running and shooting, less bus travel). 

Anthony Zerbe joins the cast as Lt. K.C. Trench, whose relationship with Harry will be alternately friendly and contentious, and Farrah Fawcett debuts in episode 19 ("Double Jeopardy") as a tentative romantic interest for the now inexplicably irresistible Harry.  The season's next-to-last episode, "Elegy for a Cop", features the shocking demise of a regular character in one of the season's most serious episodes (penned by series creator Howard Rodman).  The final episode in the set, "Street Games", is notable for giving us "Brady Bunch" alumnus Maureen McCormick as a teen drug addict.

Other guest stars featured during season one include Linda Evans, Jim Backus, Cab Calloway, Leif Erickson, Sharon Acker, Charles Haid, Stephanie Powers, Barry Sullivan, Linda Evans, Anne Archer, Gordon Jump, Lawrence Luckinbill, David Dukes, Rosalind Cash, Margaret Avery, James McEachin, Jack Mullaney, Diane Ewing, Marla Adams, Michael Strong, James Olson, Barbara Anderson, Robert Reed, Jerry Hardin, Sharon Farrell, Bernie Kopell, Mariclaire Costello, John Rubenstein, Diana Hyland, Kathleen Lloyd, James Wainwright, William Sylvester, Jack Riley, Lawrence Pressman, Kurt Russell, Ben Piazza, and Karen Lynn Gorney.

The first of two pilot TV-movies for the series--"Such Dust as Dreams are Made On", with Martin Sheen, Sal Mineo, Margot Kidder, Will Geer, and Marianna Hill (Fredo's wife in THE GODFATHER PART II)--is included on disc six, but not the second pilot, "Smile Jenny, You're Dead", which, sadly, is missing here. 

Sheen, an extremely familiar television presence at the time, plays Harlan Garrison, the petty thief who shot Harry years earlier during a hold-up and forced him into early retirement.  A young Cheryl Ladd appears briefly under her real name, Cheryl Jean Stoppelmoor.  The frantic motorcycle chase finale, with Harry hightailing it after a fleeing Sal Mineo, would be reused in its entirety for the episode "Elegy for a Cop."  

The six-disc DVD set from Warner Archive is in the original full-screen with Dolby mono sound.  No subtitles.  Picture quality shows its age a bit at times but still looked fine to me, although videophiles will no doubt notice every scratch.

While enjoying respectable ratings during its second season, "Harry O" would nevertheless be cancelled by ABC president Fred Silverman in favor of the jigglier "Charlie's Angels", causing a disillusioned David Janssen to pretty much retire from series TV altogether until his untimely death in 1980.  But we're lucky to have two good seasons of "Harry O", the first of which is now preserved in HARRY O: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON for 70s cop show fans to enjoy and wax nostalgic over. 

Buy it at


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