Way back in the dark ages of television. Harry Orwell was a former police detective who was shot and retired on medical disability. David Janssen was of course, The Fugitive, and although a respected actor, struggled to find another successful project after that series. Harry O, although a quality show, lasted just two seasons. Television then had only three networks producing original programming, and was clogged with police and detective shows of all shapes and styles. Finding traction in that crowded environment required being different.
He lives near the ocean, in a house that has seen better days, he spends his time slowly rebuilds a boat, when he is not working as a private investigator. He has a sports car that is often in shop, so he knows how to ride the bus. Orwell is forty-something and moves slow because of his disability, but that does not deter younger women to being attracted to him. Instead of living in L.A., he lives in San Diego (at least for most of the first season). He also narrates the show, personalizing Orwell and his thought-process as he pursues a case. Orwell was a 1970s version of a noir P.I., but things were much different than 30 years earlier in the profession.
The first season was actually preceded by two television movies airing in 1973 and 1974, which introduced the Orwell character. It may have been the plan for this to eventually become a series as the each movie and the series would undergo tinkering to rework the format and the characters.
In the first season, Orwell, living in San Diego, has a friendly relationship with Lt. Manny Quinlin (above) on the police department. Played by Henry Darrow, he is an empathetic to Orwell, providing him with information, but no patsy.
In the fourteenth episode of the first season, the show is relocated to Los Angeles, and Harry gets a new police contact, this time played by Anthony Zerbe, as Lt. Trench, who is pricklier than Quinlin. Trench and Orwell have a spirited relationship, although it is very respectful. Zerbe won an Emmy for his role.
For the second season, the network did more thinking with the show, jazzing up the music and making it flashier. ABC was a network on the rise and they were looking for skin, not depth, easy laughs, not sophistication. That’s why they gave us Happy Days, Lavern and Shirley, Vega$, Fantasy Island and The Love Boat. I did not mention the Shakespeare of crime drama, Charlie’s Angels, which would replace Harry O the following season, starring one of Harry’s sometimes girlfriend, Farrah Fawcett.
Sadly, Harry O was on the wrong network. Even though the show was building a solid following, it was a thoughtful show and trying to “glitz” it up, did not work. Although the network continued to tinker with the shoe, it provided a good budget for guest stars. The show never looked fancy, but neither did it look cheap.
Orwell is written as world-weary, which most P.I.s are, but with a dry sense of humor and happy with his life. Janssen was well-chosen for the role, middle aged and comfortable, like your favorite pair of shoes. Like Jim Rockford, Orwell does not enjoy chasing or fighting if at all possible. Janssen’s Orwell is not that far from his Dr. Kimball. Both characters are moral and unpretentious, they will do the hard thing because it is the right thing to do. Kimball avoids relationships, Orwell, not so much. Orwell has a relaxed view of life, unlike Kimball, always looking over his shoulder. Orwell sees life’s irony and appreciate the sunsets.
Janssen was said to be angry at the show’s cancellation, I can see why. Besides Dr. Kimball, this role fit him like a glove.
These were the private investigator/amateur sleuth series in 1974: Mannix, Barnaby Jones, The Magician, Banacek, The Snoop Sisters, Cannon, Rockford Files and Griff. This does not include an equal number of police dramas.
The opening few minutes from the very first episode.