ABC’s detective drama Harry O began life inauspiciously in the form of a rejected 1973 pilot movie, Such Dust as Dreams are Made On. The film introduced David Janssen (better known as Dr. Richard Kimble from four seasons on The Fugitive) as Harry Orwell, a San Diego cop turned private detective. Harry took a bullet in the back (still lodged near his spine), which left him with somewhat limited mobility and forced him into retirement.
In this pilot, Harry is confronted at his beachfront home by Harlan Garrison, the man responsible for the shooting four years before that left Harry without a job. After giving Harry a rude awakening at gunpoint, Garrison offers to hire the detective to track down the former members of Garrison’s gang (including Sal Mineo as Walter Sherer). Sherer, it turns out, wants Garrison dead. It’s pulpy, gritty stuff—interesting mainly for its atmosphere rather than its plot. Garrison is played by Martin Sheen, 33 at the time (but looking at least ten years younger).
That original pilot movie is included, along with 22 episodes, on Warner Archive’s six-disc MOD ("manufactured on demand") release of the complete first season. Amusingly, some of the footage from the 1973 pilot is repurposed for the season’s penultimate episode, “Elegy for a Cop.” As played by Janssen, Harry is at first a dour, gruff, depressed guy who doesn’t seem too thrilled with his career change. What we don’t see on this release is the second pilot movie, Smile Jenny, You’re Dead (featuring Jodie Foster), that aired in early 1974. This second chance led to the show being picked up. The season premiere, “Gertrude,” followed on September 12, 1974.
By that point, Harry’s inner monologue was part of the show, courtesy of frequent expository voiceover by Janssen. He also smiled a little more often. In other words, the appealingly hard-boiled, no-nonsense tone of Such Dust was lightened somewhat for the actual series. Still, Janssen remains extremely likeable and charismatic in the title role. This is typical ‘70s prime time drama, very episodic and always accompanied by a heaving, overly dramatic score. Guest stars pop up regularly, some of whom remain highly recognizable to this day, including Cab Calloway (“Sounds of Trumpets”) and Kurt Russell (“Double Jeopardy”).
Harry is presented with a new case in nearly every episode, with only one two-parter (“Forty Reasons to Kill”) providing some narrative continuity. The last third of the season saw some retooling of the series, with new theme music and a change of location from San Diego to Los Angeles. Anthony Zerbe (Matthias in the 1971 cult classic The Omega Man) joined the cast as Lt. Trench and would later win an Emmy for the show’s second season. Farah Fawcett first appeared late in the season, playing a supporting role as Harry’s neighbor Sue (she would continue into the second season).
Harry O, on one hand, is a prime example of the kind of cop show later parodied by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker with their classic, short-lived comedy series Police Squad! On the other hand, it’s gold for nostalgia buffs, those who fondly remember the less sophisticated storytelling of television from this era. The stories aren’t especially memorable, truth be told. It’s the late David Janssen, with his gravel voice and dry, witty delivery, who cuts through the conventions and keeps the show consistently watchable and interesting all these years later.