20 July 2006 | Cheyenne-Bodie
David Janssen shines with Andrea Marcovicci and Jodie Foster
Writer Howard Rodman was asked by Warner Brothers to create a TV version of Dirty Harry Callahan, and Harry Orwell is what he came up with! Rodman based Harry on a bit character in Nathaniel West's "Day of the Locust". The West character was a tired middle-aged salesman walking up a city hill on a hot afternoon with his jacket thrown over his shoulder and his sleeves rolled up. Harry O was written with Telly Savalas in mind, but Savalas became the peerless Theo Kojak instead.
David Janssen reinvented himself as Harry Orwell, giving a superb performance unlike any he had given before. The forty-two year old Janssen's Orwell was completely different from the brash lady-killer private detective Richard Diamond he had played at 26. Janssen's Harry Orwell was as different from his Richard Diamond as Bogart's Philip Marlowe was from his Sam Spade. And Janssen had completely left behind his great signature role of Dr. Richard Kimble.
Howard Rodman created a fine character, and Janssen played him to perfection (and made you forget it was created with the great Savalas in mind). This was far different from "O'Hara, U.S. Treasury" (which he had done two years earlier) where Jack Webb apparently asked Janssen to play some version of himself to stultifying effect. (Howard Rodman had co-written two episodes of "Naked City" that Janssen had guest starred on in the early 60's.)
The best visual images in the series were Janssen riding on a bus at night (shades of "The Fugitive") and Janssen running on the beach in his bathing suit with his halting, distinctive gait. Janssen created a very appealing classic private eye hero using his great voice for the narration, a unique shambling walk and a brilliantly chosen shabby wardrobe.
This second pilot for "Harry O" started the show promisingly. Producer/director Jerry Thorpe ("Kung Fu") did a beautiful job with this movie, hiring a very cool supporting cast including Martin Gabel, Tim McIntire, Zalman King, John Anderson, Clu Gulager, Ellen Weston and Howard Da Silva. But the best casting was of the two women who played opposite Janssen: lovely Andrea Marcovicci in the main plot and young Jodie Foster in the subplot. Both actresses were perfect, and their relationships with Janssen gave this movie an emotional weight that the resulting series didn't have. The scenes between Janssen and Marcovicci and Janssen and Foster were golden.
The resulting series was good, but not as great as it should have been. The show started the same year as "The Rockford Files". "Harry O" had a much stronger central character, but the series wasn't as shrewdly done as "Rockford". Harry O should have been set in Los Angeles from the beginning, not in San Diego. The Hollywood connection should have been played up. Harry's "friends on the force" detracted from the show, even though they were good actors. Maybe his friend on the force should have been a woman (Salome Jens). The series needed better recurring characters for Harry to play off of like Roy Huggins/Stephen Cannell gave Rockford. Perhaps Harry should have had two or three ex-wives (Colleen Dewhurst, Diana Muldaur, Julie Sommars) and maybe a cop father (Kent Taylor) and a former show girl/actress mother (Larraine Day or Gypsy Rose Lee). The character of Les, who hero-worshiped Harry, was very good and should have been used more. And they should have found excuses to bring back Marcovicci and Foster. Maybe Marcovicci's character became a lounge singer who the infatuated Orwell stayed in touch with. Maybe Harry should have adopted Jodie.
It was apparent that a lot of effort and talent went into this series. But they weren't quite able to find stories to tell that were as compelling as their superb hero.