Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Mike Connors: TV's Mannix




Mannix was the last of a certain type of American manhood, circa early '70s. He wore a tie and a wistful smile. He did not know doubt but was a friend of irony. He didn't worry about giving women "their space," and he wasn't "in touch with his feelings." He was kind to small dogs, little old ladies, and femmes fatales in deep trouble and short skirts. 

- Neely Tucker
From "Mannix Was the Man," Washington Post, November 18, 2007


If you watched the television detective series Mannix during the late 1960s and into the mid-1970s, then you are familiar with Mike Connors.  Mike portrayed Los Angeles private eye Joseph R. "Joe" Mannix on the show - and yes, he is still alive!

Mike Connors was born Krekor Ohanian on August 15, 1925 in Fresno, California.  His mother was a first generation Armenian-American.  His father, a lawyer, had migrated to the U.S. from Armenia  as a teenager to escape the turbulence in the Ottoman Empire. Connors is extremely proud of his Armenian heritage and in an article in the Armenian Reporter (May 17, 2008) by Connie Llanos, he is quoted as saying, "I never forgot the stories my dad would tell me about the atrocities he witnessed in Armenia." Mike also told the Armenian Reporter that there was a great deal of prejudice against Armenians in the Fresno area.when he was growing up and that they were derisively referred to as "Fresno Indians."

Connors' father never had the opportunity to enjoy his son's success.  He died when the actor was only 17 years old.  In order to honour both his father and his heritage, Mike made it clear that he wanted his Joe Mannix character to be of Armenian descent.  That is why Mannix was shown visiting his father's grape farm and they would speak to each other in Armenian.

During World War II, Mike, served in the United States Air Force. Upon returning to civilian life, the young man attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on a basketball scholarship. Oscar-winning film director William Wellman, who was attending a game with his son, apparently noticed Connors' expressive face on the court and encouraged him to pursue an acting career.

In an interview with the website Party Favors, Mike stated that after the game, Bill Wellman told the coach, "Ask the kid if he'd be interested in being an actor."  When Connors replied, "Yeah, sure." Wellman promised to give him a call the next time he directed a picture."  Days later, Mike was asked by the head of the UCLA drama department if he'd be interested in trying out for plays.  Although a law student, Mike was soon bitten by the acting bug.  He began taking acting lessons at the university and eventually gave up basketball for a career as an actor.

Billed as Touch Connors, the aspiring actor's first film role was the 1952 Joan Crawford vehicle Sudden Fear.  He was subsequently cast in movies such as William Wellman's Island in the Sky (1953) starring John Wayne and Flesh and the Spur, a 1957 Western.  He also portrayed Amalekite Herder in the Biblical epic The Ten Commandments.

Beginning in 1954, Connors began appearing in television roles on such series as Mr. and Mrs North (1954), City Detective (1955), The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955), The Loretta Young Show (1956), The Millionaire (1956), Gunsmoke (1956) and Maverick (1957). From 1959 to 1960, he had the starring role in a crime series called Tightrope, playing a police undercover agent who infiltrated organized crime. His character, originally referred to as "Nick Stone" (and later just "Nick"), changed his name in every episode to secure his safety.  The series ran for 37 episodes on on the CBS network.

Although Tightrope was popular with viewers, it was cancelled due to complaints about the amount of violence on the show and a dispute between CBS and the show's sponsors.  The network and the program's sponsors disagreed over CBS's unilateral decision to move the series to a later time slot.  The show's advertisers adamantly refused to go along with CBS's plans.  Since neither side would compromise, Tightrope met its demise.

Below is a 1960 photo of Mike Connors with Tightrope guest stars Leigh Snowden (left) and Claire Kelly.  Snowden and Kelly appeared with Connors in an episode of the series entitled "Three to Make Ready" (Season 1, Episode 2, 1960, Air Date: February 2, 1960).


Mike Connors in Tightrope

After supporting roles in films such as Good Neighbour Sam (1963) and Where Love Has Gone (1964), Connors was cast in the starring role of a weekly television action series about a private eye named Joe Mannix. Mannix ran for eight seasons, from 1967 until 1975, on the CBS network and 194 episodes were produced. In The Complete Directory To Prime Trime Time Network TV Shows: 1946 - Present, the series is described as "one of the most violent detective shows of its time."  Joe Mannix was constantly shot, wounded or knocked unconscious.  Throughout the course of the series, he endured a tremendous amount of physical punishment. According to the website IMDb, Mannix was knocked unconscious 55 times and shot 17 times.

During the show's first season, Joe Mannix worked for a detective agency called Wickersham at Intertect. Intertect was a computerized agency and it's interesting to watch the first season in order to see how 1960s high tech was presented. Mannix, however, was averse to the scientific and computerized approach to crime fighting. This brought him into conflict with his Intertect superior Lew Wickersham, played by Joseph Campanella.

Mannix,was a loner who preferred to use his own wiles to solve crimes.  By the second season, wary of the rules and regulations of the agency, he stuck out on his own, hiring a personal assistant named Peggy Fair. Peggy, who sometimes went undercover for her boss, was the widow of a police officer who was killed in the line of duty.  She was portrayed by Gail Fisher, one of the first African-American actresses to have a regular role on a U.S. television series.


Gail Fisher and Mike Connors

Mannix was rife with car chases and private eye Joe Mannix was very partial to dark green Plymouth convertibles.  During the first season, however, he drove an Oldsmobile Tornado. Later on, his cars included a Plymouth Barracuda convertible and a Plymouth Challenger.  The art of the television car chase, a prominent feature on Mannix, was further cultivated on The Rockford Files starring James Garner.

In 1971, Mike played Joe Mannix for laughs in an episode of Here's Lucy starring Lucille Ball.  The episode is entitled "Lucy and Mannix are held hostage"  (Season 4, Episode 4, Air Date: October 4, 1971).  In 1997, he reprised his Joe Mannix role in an episode of the Dick Van Dyke series Diagnosis Murder entitled "Hard-Boiled Murder" (Season 4, Episode 17, Air Date: February 13, 1997).  The episode was a follow-up to a 1973 Mannix episode called "Little Girl Lost" (Season 7, Episode 4, Air Date: October 7, 1973).  Many of the same actors appeared in both episodes.

After Mannix ended its run in 1975, Mike Connors secured roles in several television shows and movies.and he also played a part in a major TV miniseries.  He appeared in two 1976 TV movies as Karl Ohanian (his real last name) in The Killer Who Wouldn't Die and as Travis Green in Revenge for Rape.  In 1977, Mike had a guest role in an episode of Police Story entitled "Stigma" (Season 5, Episode 2, Air Date: November 9, 1977).  He played Curtis "Manny" Mandell.

Mike took on the leading role of Nick, the debonair owner of a floating hotel/casino, in the 1980 TV movie Casino.  From 1981 to 1982, he starred as Ben Slater in the short-lived crime drama Today's FBI.  Only 18 episodes of this post-J.Edgar Hoover FBI series were made.

Connors portrayed Air Force Colonel Harrison "Hack" Peters in ABC's epic 1988-1989 miniseries War and Remembrance.  In 1993, he appeared in the TV movie Hart to Hart Returns along with stars Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers.  He also guest-starred in three episodes of Murder, She Wrote. He played a character called Walter Murray in a 1989 episode of the series entitled "Truck Stop" and he portrayed Boyce Brown in two 1995 episodes entitled "Flim Flam" and "Shooting in Rome."  Mike also played movie mogul Jack L. Warner in James Dean: Race with Destiny, the 1997 television movie about the ill-fated 1950s actor James Dean who died in a car crash.

From 1998 to 1999, Mike Connors provided his voice in eight episodes of the animated television series Hercules.  He played his Mannix character again in the 2003 large screen comedy Nobody Knows Anything! Connors last appeared in a television role in 2007 when he was a guest star in an episode of Two and Half Men entitled "Prostitutes and Gelato" (Season 4, Episode 24, Air Date: May 14, 2007).

In 2011, he sued Paramount and CBS Television Studios in Los Angeles Superior Court claiming that he had never been paid royalties for Mannix despite being owed millions of dollars.  He sued for unspecified damages, stating that he had entered an agreement with Paramount in 1971 which guaranteed him 10 percent of gross and net proceeds from the show.

Mike Connors married Marylou Riley in 1949.  The couple met at UCLA and they had two children - a son, Matthew Gunner Ohanion (born November 1958) and a daughter, Dana Lee Connors (born July 1960). Sadly, Matthew died unexpectedly of heart failure in 2007.  Of the death of his son, Connors told the Armenian Reporter, "I guess everyone has a cross to bear, everyone has a tragedy in their life . . . We are just trying to get on with ours."

Mike is now 88 years old and he and his wife reside in Encino, California.


END NOTES

* Mike Connors' nickname is "Touch."  It comes from his college days as an athlete at UCLA where he was teased by his teammates about having a soft touch.  Mike was billed as Touch Connors until 1957 whereupon he changed his professional name to Michael Connors.

* In 1970, Gail Fisher won an Emmy Award for her portrayal of  Mannix's secretary, Peggy Fair.  She was the first black actress to win the coveted award, besting Susan Saint. James of McMillan and Wife. After Mannix was cancelled, however, Gail had a difficult finding acting roles.and she battled drug addiction. Gail Fisher passed away in Culver City, Los Angeles, County, California on December 2, 2000, reportedly from kidney failure. She was 65 years at the time of her death.


Gail Fisher


* The late Robert Reed of Brady Bunch fame had a recurring role on Mannix as Lieutenant Adam Tobias in 22 episodes of the show from 1969 until 1974.  Tobias, of the Los Angeles Police Department, was Joe Mannix's friend and also served as the private investigator's contact on the force.

* Veteran actor Joseph Campanella appeared as Lew Wickersham in 25 episodes from 1967 to 1972. Campanella will celebrate his 86th birthday on November 21, 2013.

* For its first four seasons, Mannix was produced by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's production company, Desilu, before being picked up by Paramount.  It was the the final series produced by Desilu Productions.


- Joanne


EDITOR'S UPDATE (January 27, 2017): Mike Connors died on January 26, 2017 at the age of 91.

8 comments:

  1. Great article. I always liked the series and especially like the fact that by all accounts Mike Connors was a good guy in real life.

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  2. Great to read about Mike Connors and Gail Fisher.

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  3. I use to babysit his two kids in Cali. His mother-in-law, Helen, was a best friend to my mother and worked at Trotters Bakery in Laguna. Such wonderful people! I still miss Helen..

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  4. I babysat mikes 2 children while i lived in Laguna Beach, and simply adored his mother-in-law, Helen V. He and his family are wonderful people

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  5. Really enjoyed this article. I liked Tightrope and if I remember the tag line at the end of the show it was "and one man got away".

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  6. Thank you for this great article. I enjoyed reading about Mr.conners life and career. Sorry to read that Gail Fisher couldn't further her career after mannix was cancelled. Conner's seems to be well liked on and off TV and movies. So glad there is a TV station that shows programs from the 60's and 70's and mannix is one of the great series they are playing. Congrats

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  7. Watching the episode of Diagnosis Murder with the Joe Mannix character right now.

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  8. I Love Mike Connors, how down to earth, humble, and compassion come to mind. I would like to let him know personally how I believe he was a leader for human rights, and the suffering of others. You never seen him in the gossip columns, which I believe a lot of performers create their own gossip. I believe that like most, he had vices, but stared them down and conquered them. I noticed in the first few seasons of Mannix that he smoked, and then he stopped. But didn't go on a crusade, in true to life form, he didn't bar it on the show, or judge. I believe the same thing went on in Mike Connors life. I really just have to say how much I admire Mike, and his role on Mannix. Keep up the good work, and wish you the best of health, Best Regards Joe Mannix. I have never wrote a "fanmail" about or to anyone, yet I feel this is my onetime deal. I hope this gets to you Mike.

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