David Janssen IS “Harry O”

I thought David Janssen (David Meyer, 1931-1980) was a ubiquitous figure in show business when I was a kid, but that may just have been because my mother was obsessed with him and watched everything he was in. He was a sex symbol for middle-aged women in the 1970s, with his distinct raspy voice and piercing eyes. And he’d been around for decades.

Indeed working in show business was his entire life. Janssen had been acting professionally since he was about 14 years old. By the mid 1970s he’d had scores of minor parts in forgettable films; some of the more prominent included The Great Berets and Marooned, both in 1969. By comparison, television was much better to him. He’d starred in the shows Richard Diamond, Private Eye (1957-1960), The Fugitive (1963-67) and O’Hara, U.S. Treasury (1971-72), a Jack Webb show. Because of these associations, he was practically a brand unto himself.

Harry O‘s unusual premise was that Janssen’s character was a disabled private eye. Harry Orwell was a cop who’d been retired against his will because he had a bullet lodged in his spine. The credit sequence to the show depicted him limping around, looking at things, taking the bus, and abandoning foot chases because of his aching back. This was something, I’m sure, to which his audiences could relate. Harry was a P.I. with all the usual trappings, kind of in the Rockford mode, a cynical loner on the fringes, but with that added aspect to arouse our sympathy. He had additional hurdles to clear. He had a hard time getting around.

The show’s pilot was a 1973 TV movie called Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On, followed by another movie Smile Jenny, You’re Dead. The series itself ran two seasons, 1974-76. The initial season was set in San Diego and featured Henry Darrow as a local cop with whom he often dealt. When the show didn’t do as well as anticipated, the producers retooled the whole thing, gave it slicker packaging, and re-set it in Los Angeles, now with Anthony Zerbe and Farrah Fawcett-Majors in the cast (this is how audiences knew her just prior to Charlie’s Angels). This season did alright but the network pulled the plug anyway, making Janssen bitter about the experience, declaring that he’d never do another TV series.

While that proved to be true, he certainly had no compunctions about doing MINI-series, such as The Word (1978), and Centennial (1978-79). These were of a piece with his long tradition of appearing in delightfully schlocky TV movies both before and after Harry O, including Moon of the Wolf (1972); Hijack! (1973); Stalk the Wild Child (1976, about a boy raised by wolves); Mayday at 40,000 Feet (1976), A Sensitive Passionate Man (1977), Superdome (1978), S.O.S. Titanic (1979), and City in Fear (1980), and the cinematic release Two-Minute Warning (1976).

Whether or not Janssen would have done another TV series will always be academic, for age 48 the four-pack-a-day smoker was felled by a fatal heart attack, proving that Harry O was even more vulnerable than we thought.