A detective drama starring David Janssen, created by Howard Rodman (who previously was the main writer for Naked City) and produced by Jerry Thorpe for Warner Bros. Television, Harry O featured Janssen as Harry Orwell, a cop who was forced to retire due to a bullet in his back. The injury was suffered in 1969, four years before the first pilot aired.
The first pilot, "Such Dust As Dreams Are Made On", aired in early 1973. Rodman envisioned Harry as a Willy Loman-type character, a hard luck kind of guy, and that was exactly how Janssen played him. In the first pilot, Harry is hired by Harlan Garrison (Martin Sheen), one of the two armed robbers responsible for Harry's injury and the death of his partner. Garrison wants Harry to protect him from his former accomplice (Sal Mineo), who's out to kill him.
The success of this pilot led to a second one a year later, Smile, Jenny, You're Dead, in which Harry is hired by an old friend (Howard Da Silva) to protect his daughter (Andrea Marcovicci), a model who's being stalked by an obsessed and murderous admirer (Zalman King).
After the two successful pilots, ABC commissioned a series, which debuted in the Fall of 1974. Set and filmed in San Diego, Harry lives in a houseboat on the beach and continues to work as a private investigator. His contact on the police force is Lt. Manny Quinlan (Henry Darrow), who tolerates Harry's constant presence in his office because they were friends while on the force together. Manny eschews Harry's constant requests for information on whatever case he's working on with what seemed to be a mantra for him..."Stay out of it, Harry!" Naturally, Harry never does, gets in over his head, and Manny and his helpers, Sgt. Frank Cole (Tom Atkins) and Officer Billings (David Moses), arrive to help sort things out. Harry also has a very unreliable car, which is always in the shop of his mechanic, Roy Bordello (Mel Stewart), so oftentimes Harry has to ride the bus to get around. This led to a very interesting chase scene in one of the early episodes...would you expect to see a bus chasing a car?
After 14 episodes, the first case of Executive Meddling came into play for Harry O. ABC and Warner Bros. both felt that the cost of filming in San Diego was too high, especially for a series that wasn't pulling in big numbers, so the decision was made to move the location to Los Angeles. This meant that a whole new supporting cast was necessary. Harry's new police contact was the irascible Lt. K.C. Trench (Anthony Zerbe), assisted by Sgt. Don Roberts (Paul Tulley). Harry now lived in a house at the beach, with a gorgeous new neighbor, a stewardess played by Kathrine Baumann, and Harry's car, which all of a sudden became more reliable, was now in the hands of Spencer Johnson (Bill Henderson). The wistful theme music and opening credits were retooled to make the show more exciting.
For the second season, the theme music and, especially, the opening credits, were made over again. Harry got another stewardess for a neighbor/occasional girlfriend, Sue Ingram (Farrah Fawcett-Majors). Anthony Zerbe won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama, and the series was a constant Top 20 performer. Despite all of this, the series was history once Fred Silverman took over as President of ABC. He canceled a number of popular series, including Harry O. David Janssen, who had found a character that he developed and enjoyed playing, was so upset that he decided never to do another TV series ever.
Harry O contains examples of:
- The Alcoholic: Jennifer Roth (Carol Rossen) in the episode "One For the Road". She's an attorney with a serious drinking problem who suspects that she may have been the driver in a fatal hit-and-run accident and hires Harry to ascertain whether that is the situation.
- And Starring: Also Starring Henry Darrow (for the San Diego episodes), Anthony Zerbe (for the Los Angeles episodes).
- Badges and Dog Tags: In the episode "Mayday", it's established that Harry served in The Korean War with the Victim of the Week.
- Billed Above the Title: 'David Janssen as...Harry O'.note
- The Bus Came Back: Manny Quinlan in "Elegy For a Cop"...unfortunately, he winds up getting killed during his mission in L.A.
- Character Narrator: Harry narrates both pilots and every episode.
- Character Title: The series is titled after its main character, Harry Orwell.
- Clear My Name: This being a detective drama, Harry is hired a lot to clear someone of murder or another serious charge. In "APB: Harry Orwell", the accused killer he has to clear is...himself! And he breaks police custody to do it...gee, David Janssen as a falsely accused killer who breaks police custody to clear his name...that sounds awfully familiar!
- Clear Their Name: Trench in the episode "Anatomy of a Frame", who hires Harry to clear him of the murder of an informant.
- Cool Car: That little foreign sports car that Harry tools around in is pretty neat... when it's running. When it's not, it becomes The Alleged Car.
- Cop Killer: Sal Mineo in "Elegy For a Cop". The cop who gets killed is Lt. Manny Quinlan, who's arrived in L.A. to search for his drug-addicted niece (Kathy Lloyd).
- The Ditz: Gertrude Blaney (Julie Sommars) in the series' premiere episode, "Gertrude". She's a bit scatterbrained and even sells all her furniture to hire Harry to find her missing brother Harold (Les Lannom).
- Driven to Suicide: Roy St. John (Zalman King) in the second pilot, Smile, Jenny, You're Dead. Harry and Jenny discover him on the roof of a high-rise. He tells them, "Don't be afraid...I CAN FLY!" and throws himself off the roof. Needless to say, he couldn't fly.
- Friend on the Force: Lt. Manny Quinlan for the San Diego episodes, Lt. K.C. Trench for the L.A. episodes.
- Ms. Fanservice: Kathrine Baumann and Farrah Fawcett-Majors. On the beach in L.A. In bikinis. 'Nuff said.
- Pilot: Two of them, "Such Dust As Dreams Are Made On" and Smile, Jenny, You're Dead.
- Poorly Disguised Pilot: "The Mysterious Case of Lester and Dr. Fong", a failed pilot for a possible series with Les Lannom (as wannabe private detective Lester Hodges) and Keye Luke (as Oriental criminologist Dr. Creighton Fong).
- Private Investigator: Harry is forced into the profession after his Career-Ending Injury.
- Put on a Bus: Lt. Manny Quinlan, Sgt. Frank Cole, Roy Bordello and Betsy (the first few from the San Diego episodes, the last from the L.A. episodes).
- Recurring Character: Sgt. Frank Cole (Tom Atkins), Officer Billings (David Moses) and Roy Bordello in the San Diego episodes.
- Betsy (Kathrine Baumann), Sgt. Don Roberts (Paul Tulley), Sue Ingram (Farrah Fawcett-Majors), Lester Hodges (Les Lannom) and Spencer Johnson (Bill Henderson) in the L.A. episodes.
- Retool: The first 13 episodes were set and filmed in San Diego. After a single episode where Harry travels out to the desert on a case ("The Last Heir"), the locale is switched to Los Angeles, where it remained for the rest of the series. The supporting/recurring cast from the San Diego episodes (Henry Darrow, Tom Atkins, Mel Stewart, David Moses) were dropped and replaced with new supporting actors (Anthony Zerbe, Paul Tulley, Bill Johnson, Kathrine Baumann, Farrah Fawcett-Majors). Additionally, the theme music and opening credits were revamped with the move to L.A. When the second season debuted, the theme was altered slightly, and a whole new opening credits sequence was introduced.
- Ten Little Murder Victims: Each season had an episode that used this plot.
- From the first season: "The Last Heir", where Harry travels out to the desert and discovers that the heirs to a fortune are being eliminated one by one.
- From the second season: "The Mysterious Case of Lester and Dr. Fong", where Lester Hodges and Dr. Creighton Fong try to find out who's taking out the members of Lester's family.
- Title Drop: Three very obvious ones, all named after the main guest character..."Gertrude", "Lester" and "Ruby".
- Ugly Guy Hot Girlfriend: While by no means was David Janssen an unattractive man, he plays a graying and grouchy character in this series. (Contrast the virile, dark-haired hunk he plays in The Fugitive.) That being said, he did land his share of attractive women, including Linda Evans, Joanna Pettet (not once, but TWICE!), Susan Strasburg and Farrah Fawcett-Majors.