Oh man, O Man.
I need to come clean on something before I get going. And that is that I was only nine or so when this very incredible, very thoughtful TV show first came on the scene. I was too young to stay up that late. I only vaguely remember the second half of the first season, when the show was moved from San Diego to Los Angeles. Some sort of money thing, as shooting in San Diego quickly became too costly. Harry, played to the hilt by David Janssen, was the penultimate private eye. Harry Orwell had been a cop but was wounded in the line of duty. However, getting shot in the back didn’t kill him; it killed his career as a policeman instead. What I love about that bullet is that it serves as a powerful symbol for the wounding that Harry’s view of the world took. In an even more powerful bit of symbolism, he owns a derelict boat named The Answer. Can you get any more symbolic, right? And of course, he’s always working on The Answer. (Yes, I just had to get that in, sorry.)
Harry of course has a cop friend on the force (which private detective doesn’t?). Captain Manny Quinlan, played by Henry Darrow. He was given a difficult role, was Henry, having to play the foil for Harry’s character. One moment he’s a source of information, then in another he’s the cop who threatens to yank Harry’s private eye license. I would like to add here one totally bad-ass bit of awesomeness in the Captain Quinlan character: his ties rival Michael Douglas’s in The Streets of San Francisco. After the show moved to Los Angeles, Darrow’s character was replaced by Lt. Trench of the Santa Monica PD, played to perfection by Anthony Zerbe (who won an Emmy for his role).
I can hear you now. “A world weary, loner private eye? A friend on the police force? Walking not only the mean streets, but also the rarified halls of the upper classes?”
The answer shrieks back at you: This. Is. High. Noir.
And you’d be absolutely correct. The show is Noir. Janssen’s voice-over is right out of a Chandler novel. And all these aforementioned elements, juxtaposed against 1970’s San Diego and Los Angeles, work to Noir perfection. That juxtaposition was one that I at first didn’t think would work, but oh man does it ever. (Or should that be “O man does it ever”?)
Another realization I came to while watching episode upon episode is that, in its way, the show is strongly tied to The Mod Squad. Harry carries no gun, like the characters in The Mod Squad. He’s not into using his fists (well, okay… Linc uses his fists quite a bit). Harry uses his head and his heart (as does TMS's Pete). The bad guys are rarely, if ever, killed. Always arrested. These are elements both shows share. And Harry O began its run in the early 70’s, just when The Mod Squad was winding down and when the entire flower-power movement was still there, though beginning its slow decline into overdoses and cynicism. It feels like Harry O was the last flash of the match before it burns out.
And remember, the shows that came after Harry O, shows like Baretta, S.W.A.T., and Starsky and Hutch have a COMPLETELY different take on the world. Guns and car chases. Harry’s car spends more time at the mechanic’s than on the street, and looks more like the brother of Columbo’s jalopy than anywhere near Starsky’s tomato-red Gran Torino. And hell, Harry doesn’t even own a gun. He can run, sure, but doesn’t do it that often, if at all (hurts his back). Harry O is all about Harry using his head.
The episodes carry the usual suspects as far as guest stars from that time period: Martin Sheen (yes, Martin Sheen. He was also in a Streets of San Francisco episode around this time), Linda Evans, Stephanie Powers, and Robert Reed to name just a few. Farrah Fawcett co-stars (prior to her Charlie’s Angels stint) as Harry’s neighbor after the series moved to Los Angeles.
Sadly, the show never really took off, and ran for only two years. Thankfully though, it is available on DVD for your enjoyment. Since I grew up in Southern California during those years, it was a fun trip down memory lane. If you’re a fan of noir, and also a fan of Southern California beaches, then give Harry O a go.
Bay Area resident Robert K. Lewis has been a painter, printmaker, and a produced screenwriter. In addition to contributing here, Lewis is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the International Thriller Writers. Untold Damage is his first novel. Visit him at his website, at needlecity.wordpress.com, and on Twitter @robertklewis.