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Prior to his long-running role as the NYPD detective Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order, Jerry Orbach had a recurring role as a Boston private investigator named Harry McGraw. The character was first introduced in an episode of Murder, She Wrote and proved so popular that it became the basis of a spin-off titled The Law and Harry McGraw — the only spin-off that Murder, She Wrote ever produced.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the recurring characters on Murder, She Wrote, and have been meaning to compile details about each of them for a long time. Harry McGraw is one of those particularly memorable and endearing recurring characters, and is also a character with a unique history on the show. Without further ado, I give a sketch of all of Jerry Orbach’s appearances as Harry McGraw below.
Beginnings on Murder, She Wrote
Harry McGraw had his start in the very first season of Murder, She Wrote. The episode “Though Guys Don’t Die” (Season 1 Episode 15) first aired on February 24th, 1985 and introduced viewers to the character. (Interestingly, this episode also guest starred Barbara Babcock, who would later co-star with Orbach in The Law & Harry McGraw.)
The episode was written by Peter S. Fischer (one of the co-creators of Murder, She Wrote) and includes references to The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. In The Maltese Falcon, San Francisco private investigator Sam Spade goes searching to find the killer of his fellow P.I. and business partner Miles Archer. In “Tough Guys Don’t Die”, Boston private investigator Harry McGraw goes searching to find the killer of his fellow P.I. and business partner Archie Miles. This puts Harry in touch with Jessica Fletcher, who had previously hired Archie Miles to do some research on a historic murder for her new book.
Orbach’s next appearance on the show occurred almost exactly one year later, on February 23rd, 1986, in “One Good Bid Deserves a Murder” (Season 2 Episode 17). This time, the episode was written by other writers (J. Miyoko Hensley & Steven Hensley). In addition to seeing Harry McGraw helping Jessica Fletcher investigate a murder involving a Boston auction, viewers further learned that Harry McGraw’s full name is Harlan A. McGraw.
A year after that, on February 22nd, 1987, Orbach made his third appearance on the show in “Death Takes a Dive” (Season 3 Episode 16). This time, the job of writing the episode went back to Peter S. Fischer, who had Jessica Fletcher come to Harry McGraw’s rescue when he gets accused of murder.
It was also a special extra-long 90-minute episode that was deliberately intended to be a backdoor pilot for a new show featuring Harry McGraw—a show that was being pitched to network execs for the following fall season. Thus, the spin-off The Law & Harry McGraw was born.
The Law & Harry McGraw
The Law & Harry McGraw first aired on September 27th 1987 with a special two-hour pilot episode. As this was a Sunday, the network evidently chose to air it back-to-back with Murder, She Wrote in order to help hook the already established audience. The remainder of the show’s episodes, however, regularly aired on Tuesday evenings.
Approximately half of the episodes were written by the creator of the show and character, Peter S. Fischer, which helped the show retain a sense of consistency. [EDIT: If you’re interested in learning more about Fischer’s experiences with creating and working on the two shows, you can check out his memoir: Me and Murder, She Wrote.] While the character of Harry McGraw was essentially unchanged from the way he appeared on Murder, She Wrote, within The Law & Harry McGraw the audience got a better glimpse into his private and professional social circle. As a result, there was a large cast of regular characters.
- Barbara Babcock played Ellie Maginnis, the “Law” part in The Law & Harry McGraw. Ellie was a widow and a lawyer who had an office across the hall from Harry’s, and who might perhaps have become Harry’s romantic interest.
- Shea Farrell played Steve Lacey, Ellie Maginnis’s nephew and a tax attorney working at her law practice.
- Peter Haskell played Deputy D.A. Tyler Chase, who was also romantically interested in Ellie Maginnis.
- Juliana Donald played E. J. Brunson, Harry McGraw’s niece who helped him with his administrative tasks.
While the above cast appeared in every episode, two additional recurring characters who regularly appeared in the show are:
- Earl Boen as Sgt. Howard Sternhagen, a local police detective who sometimes helps Harry.
- Marty Davis as “Cookie”, a bartender at Harry’s local bar.
Nevertheless, the show apparently failed to capture audiences. If you count the special two-part pilot episode as a single episode, then only 16 episodes of the show were ever made before it got cancelled in February 1988.
- “Dead Men Don’t Make Phone Calls” (two-hour pilot) (September 27, 1987)
- “State of the Art” (September 29, 1987)
- “Beware the Ides of May” (October 6, 1987)
- “Mr. Chapman, I Presume?” (October 13, 1987)
- “The Fallen Arrow” (October 20, 1987)
- “Rappaport Is Back in Town” (October 27, 1987)
- “Angela’s Secret” (November 3, 1987)
- “Old Heroes Never Lie” (November 10, 1987)
- “Solve It Again, Harry” (November 17, 1987)
- “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (December 1, 1987)
- “Murder by a Landslide” (December 8, 1987)
- “Gilhooley’s is History” (January 13, 1988)
- “She’s Not Wild About Harry” (January 20, 1988)
- “Waiting Game” (January 27, 1988)
- “Harry Does the Hustle” (February 3, 1988)
- “Maginnis for the People” (February 10, 1988)
Episodes of The Law & Harry McGraw have historically been difficult to track down. The show has never been released on DVD in America or the UK, and the only DVD releases I know of happened in Australia and in France. To complicate matters, apparently there was a studio fire that damaged some of the original recordings of the show, making it unlikely that it will ever be released on DVD due to poor video quality.
However, I have managed to track down digital copies and have uploaded them to my YouTube channel for posterity and for fans of TV mysteries to enjoy. I have uploaded six episodes so far, and will upload the remaining ten episodes over the next ten days. Check my The Law & Harry McGraw playlist for a full list of episodes uploaded so far. And if you watch the pilot episode, be sure to keep an eye out for Ron Masak as a Boston police detective (one year before he joined the regular cast of Murder, She Wrote as Cabot Cove Sheriff Mort Metzger)!
Return to Murder, She Wrote
After The Law & Harry McGraw was cancelled, Jerry Orbach was free to reprise his role as the character on Murder, She Wrote. Thus, one year later, on April 30, 1989, Harry McGraw made another appearance in the episode “Double Exposure” (Season 5 Episode 19), in which Jessica Fletcher enlists his help to track down her former neighbor.
Interestingly, the episode makes a direct reference to Harry McGraw’s world, as seen in The Law & Harry McGraw, and even brings over the characters of Sgt. Howard Sternhagen and “Cookie” the bartender.
After no appearances in Season 6, Harry McGraw comes back to make two appearances in Season 7. First in episode 17 “From the Horse’s Mouth” (on February 24, 1991) and then again in episode 22 “The Skinny According to Nick Cullhane” (on May 12, 1991), both of which make strong references to Harry’s penchant for gambling.
That last episode of Season 7 also happened to be the last episode for Harry McGraw, as Jerry Orbach (or anybody for that matter) would no longer make any further appearances as the character. One year later, on November 25, 1992, Jerry Orbach made his first appearance as Det. Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order (a role he held from Season 3 through Season 14 of that series, and which he reprised in Law & Order: Trial by Jury).
Harry McGraw in the spin-off novels
Although the spin-off novels cannot possibly feature an actor like Jerry Orbach, I thought that fans of Harry McGraw would be interested in a short list of Murder, She Wrote novels that featured the character. I compiled this list thanks to the Murder, She Wrote Book Club Tumblr website. What was interesting to me was to realize that Harry McGraw was not mentioned in the novels until quite late into the spin-off novel series, and not until well after Jerry Orbach sadly passed away in 2004.
- Book 38: Domestic Malice (2012) by Donald Bain
- Book 47: A Date With Murder (2018) by Donald Bain and Jon Land
- Book 48: Manuscript for Murder (2018) by Jon Land
- Book 49: Murder in Red (2019) by Jon Land
- Book 51: Murder of Twelve (2020) by Jon Land
- Book 53: Killing in a Koi Pond (2021) by Terrie Farley Moran