Harry O: As Quirky as They Come

by Ed Robertson

September 12, 1974-April 29, 1976

  • David Janssen as Harry Orwell
  • Henry Darrow as Lt. Manny Quinlan
  • Anthony Zerbe as Lt. K.C. Trench
  • Paul Tulley as Sgt. Don Roberts
  • Les Lannom as Lester Hodges
  • Farrah Fawcett-Majors as Sue Ingham

Harry Orwell (David Janssen) wasn’t like most other TV private eyes. He owned a car, but rode the bus because his car was often “sick.” He couldn’t run well because of a bullet lodged in his back from his days on the San Diego police force. And he really didn’t have to work. Though his disability pension didn’t make him rich, it afforded him a life of simple pleasures. Though he didn’t work for free, he didn’t always work for money: he once let a client pay off his fee by working on his boat, The Answer. But he could also afford to work “on the house” occasionally, if he truly believed in a client, or if he felt somehow he’d let the client down. Jim Rockford would never do that.

Harry’s police contact was Lt. Manny Quinlan (Henry Darrow), who trusted Harry even though their friendship sometimes got him into trouble with the brass. Manny usually cooperated with him, because he knew Harry would always return the favor by bringing him in on the kill. Manny was a good cop in his own right, but his arrest record probably wouldn’t have been as impressive without Harry’s help.

Harry O premiered with “Gertrude” (September 12, 1974), a delightful combination of mystery and whimsy written by series creator Howard Rodman. (Rodman’s script was honored by the Mystery Writers of America in 1975 with an Edgar Award nomination for Best Episode in a Television Series.) Despite the promising start, however, Warner Bros. and ABC each had their concerns: the studio worried about skyrocketing production costs (the show was filmed entirely on location in San Diego), while the network believed the ratings, while respectable, weren’t high enough to justify the expense.

By midseason, production of the show, along with Harry himself, relocated to Los Angeles, with the switch in locale explained over the course of two episodes. Harry’s client in “For the Love of Money” (January 16, 1975) brings him to L.A., where he rents an apartment and befriends his airline stewardess neighbor Betsy (Kathrine Baumann). When Harry learns in “Sound of Trumpets” (January 30, 1975) that his bordertown home is being torn down, he moves to Santa Monica – right next-door to Betsy’s new place. Betsy and her often-bikini-clad roommates, like Gina (Barbara Leigh) and Linzy (Loni Anderson), frequently pop in for a visit, which Harry never seems to mind. Eventually, Betsy disappears, and fellow stewardess Sue Ingham (Farrah Fawcett-Majors) becomes Harry’s new neighbor (and steady girlfriend) in “Double Jeopardy” (February 13, 1975).

Harry’s new foil was the meticulous Lt. K.C. Trench (Anthony Zerbe), who respected our hero’s integrity but was constantly frustrated by Harry’s casual manner and independence. “Trench had his way of doing things, and he was very successful at it,” says Zerbe. “Then suddenly he looks over his shoulder, and he sees this guy Orwell is gaining on him, and that’s the fun of it. Trench really loves Harry, but he knows Harry’s way is not his way. And he knows that Harry needs a Trench, and that Trench definitely needs a Harry. It’s a kind of symbiotic relationship. Harry bemuses Trench, and even exasperates him, but ultimately Trench loves him.”

The shift to Los Angeles also introduced Sergeant Roberts (Paul Tulley), Trench’s protÈgÈ, and Lester Hodges (Les Lannom), a silver-spooned would-be criminologist whose well-meaning stupidity gave Harry nothing but grief. A typical Lester misadventure was “Mister Five and Dime” (January 8, 1976), in which Harry’s search for a kidnapped elderly counterfeiter leads to embarrassing ramifications involving Trench, the F.B.I., the Treasury Department, and the Mexican Secret Service.

Harry O was one of the first series in television history to kill off a regular character: Manny Quinlan is gunned down in the poignant “Elegy For a Cop” (February 27, 1975). “That is my favorite episode,” says Henry Darrow, “because of the irony of my character being killed on camera. Through the years, a number of policemen who’ve seen that show have told me that’s how they remembered being shot themselves, or seeing their friends shot. They’d think, ‘Wow,’ after I looked down to see where I’d been shot in the stomach, because they’re thinking, ‘Ah, man, I just bought it… it’s over for me. And then, of course, at the end of that show, there’s that wonderful scene where David goes into a bar, picks that bottle of tequila, and says, ‘In case any of your friends come in, let ’em have a drink on Manny Quinlan…'”

The changes in format gave Harry O a charming new quirkiness, sparked particularly by Janssen and Zerbe’s marvelous on-camera chemistry. And the viewers responded: ratings for the second half of the 1974-1975 season went up ten percent, good enough to merit renewal.

The second season featured many stand-out episodes, including “A.P.B. Harry Orwell” (November 6, 1975), for which Zerbe won the Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the 1975-1976 season. Though the ratings remained respectable, the series was nonetheless canceled after two years. New network chief Fred Silverman, determined to catapult ABC to the top (as he had done earlier with CBS), looked at the numbers and decided Harry O was, at best, a “good little show,” as opposed to a show with breakaway hit potential.

In a sense, though, it’s fitting that Harry O ended when it did. There probably could not have been a more appropriate finale than the “tag” segment of “Victim” (March 4, 1976), the last episode to be filmed. Harry finally buys Trench a new bag of coffee after finishing off the last batch a few days before. Though the lieutenant appreciates the gesture, he has a lot of work to do, so it’s business as usual: “Goodbye, Orwell.”

“Goodbye, Trench,” says Harry, as he strolls past Sergeant Roberts.

“Goodbye, Harry,” says Roberts. Freeze-frame.

Ed Robertson is the author of three television series histories, including “This is Jim Rockford…”.


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