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Returning to Films : Deputy D.A. Changes His Script

March 13, 1986|NANCY GRAHAM | Times Staff Writer

Richard Harbinger never planned to go into law; he started out in the movie business.

Harbinger, a Santa Monica deputy district attorney who is retiring at the end of March, says he took up the legal profession because "in my imagination, all great trial lawyers were Charles Laughton and all the clients were Marlene Dietrich. I was certain that I would be defending people like Marlene Dietrich, but ironically, I (became) a prosecutor, and I haven't seen too many like her in the lockup."

But that's about all he hasn't seen.

Harbinger, 62, has helped prosecute defendants in some of the most dramatic and colorful cases of the last 10 years, from the 1976 trial of Symbionese Liberation Army members William and Emily Harris and Patricia Hearst, to the often comedic trial of 64 nude sunbathers in Malibu Municipal Court.

Now, Harbinger is looking for a way to combine his interests in film making and law and a long-standing love of China.

Next month Harbinger and his wife, the former Annette Yuk-Ngo Wong, a fourth-generation Chinese-American, plan to go to the People's Republic of China with a group of attorneys called the People to People Comparative Law Delegation.

Will Tour China

The group will tour China, studying its legal and criminal justice systems. In the fall, Harbinger will teach a course on American criminal law and procedures at Nanjing University Law School and speak on the same subject at Peking University.

He will also explore the possibility of producing joint-venture films and documentaries with the Chinese.

Harbinger grew up in Los Angeles but went to Princeton for his education, receiving his bachelor's degree in 1953 and his master's in English in 1955.

After graduation, he returned to California and went to work at the old MGM Studio on Formosa Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, where producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. was producing the 1956 classic, "Witness for the Prosecution," starring Laughton as the defense attorney, Tyrone Power as an accused murderer and Dietrich.

It was a film that Harbinger would not forget. He spent 10 more years at the studios, working as a story analyst for David O. Selznick and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He also taught: acting technique at North Hollywood Adult School, play writing at Columbia College in Los Angeles and at Pasadena Playhouse and story editing at UCLA.

Later, working with Jack Webb, creator of "Dragnet" and "Adam 12," Harbinger put together an idea for a show based on the life of the famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow. "I was hooked on being a defense attorney. By then, I felt I not only could be Charles

Enchanted With Idea

"I'm a romantic, and I became enchanted with the idea of becoming a trial lawyer," Harbinger said.

But he admitted that more serious factors drew him to the law. Early in his life, he said, he fell under the influence of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, who had also been an attorney. And by the late '60s, the civil rights movement was in full swing and he said he felt that he should be participating.

So he went to study law at Notre Dame in 1966 but he kept his hand in the entertainment field, teaching television production and public speaking. He received his law degree from Notre Dame in 1969.

When he graduated, Harbinger was still convinced that he wanted to become a defense attorney, but events led him down another path.

In 1968 he worked as a law clerk for the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office and as a special assistant to three presidents of the American Bar Assn., including Leon Jaworski, special Watergate prosecutor.

Through his assignments for the Bar Assn., he served as an aide to Chief Justice Warren E. Burger at the 1971 London meeting of the organization. Later that year he joined the office of the California attorney general. In 1972 he became a deputy attorney general and came to Santa Monica in 1980.

James Bascue, head deputy district attorney at Santa Monica, described Harbinger as a "professorial type, a gentleman at all times who exudes great knowledge and always appears to be prepared. He's methodical, doesn't get rattled and is always in control."

Air Force Pilot

Harbinger became interested in China in 1944, when, as an Air Force pilot, he transported supplies "over the hump" from India to China. During the two years he spent in China, he said, he came to admire the country and its people.

He and his wife are active in the U.S. China Peoples Friendship Assn. and the China Exchange Program at USC.

He plans to return home from the Orient before Christmas and begin to write and direct films based, for the most part, on his experiences.

Harbinger has not kept up his contacts in the film world but says he learned how to package a film product from three of the best: Selznick, Webb and Hornblow. "Hornblow used to sit me down in his office and say, 'Dick, I'm going to be the professor now, and you're going to be the student. This is how I want it done. I want less intellect and more schmaltz.'

Although his own courtroom style is low-key, Harbinger said drama and television scripts could be drawn form almost any case, and a little schmaltz has swayed many a jury.

Movie Possibilities

Many of his cases, though less notorious than those of Hearst and the Harrises or the nude sunbathers, are just sitting there, waiting to become television or movie films, Harbinger said.

He and West Los Angeles homicide Detective Richard DeAnda are planning to collaborate on a book based on one of the more interesting, but less publicized cases they worked on together. The case is dramatic and has a surprise ending, so they're not revealing any details, they said.

"The world I am part of now is the world of crime," Harbinger said. "There are more good stories than I can write or film in my lifetime. Every case I have prosecuted is a good human interest story. They have not just excitement and drama, but human interest and passion, and also say something about good and evil, and right and wrong."

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