Played the TV tough guy Joe Man­nix

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

Mike Con­nors, a rugged ac­tor who starred as the hard-nosed Joe Man­nix in a pop­u­lar TV de­tec­tive se­ries of the 1960s and 1970s that broke racial bar­ri­ers in cast­ing, died Jan. 26 in Tarzana, Calif. He was 91.

He was re­cently di­ag­nosed with leukemia, his son-in-law, Mike Con­don, told news out­lets.

Mr. Con­nors, a one­time col­lege bas­ket­ball player, was a jour­ney­man ac­tor be­fore be­ing cast in 1967 in the ti­tle role of “Man­nix,” play­ing a rene­gade de­tec­tive for a high-tech de­tec­tive agency.

The show was nearly can­celed af­ter its low-rated de­but sea­son but was saved when Lu­cille Ball, whose De­silu Pro­duc­tions de­vel­oped “Man­nix,” per­suaded CBS ex­ec­u­tives to keep it on the air.

For the sec­ond sea­son, the show was re­tooled, with Man­nix set­ting up a solo prac­tice as a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor in Los An­ge­les. He was helped by his hero­ically com­pe­tent sec­re­tary, Peggy Fair (played by Gail Fisher), in one of the first sub­stan­tial dra­matic roles for an African Amer­i­can woman on prime-time tele­vi­sion.

“Man­nix” went on to have an eight-year run, with Mr. Con­nors play­ing a pri­vate eye who was al­ways in ac­tion, al­ways in trou­ble. He be­came one of TV’s high­est-paid ac­tors of the time, earn­ing a then-astro­nom­i­cal $40,000 per episode.

“Man­nix was the last of a cer­tain type of Amer­i­can man­hood, circa early ’70s,” Wash­ing­ton Post re­porter Neely Tucker wrote in 2007. “He wore a tie and a wist­ful smile. He did not know doubt but was a friend of irony. . . . He drove too fast, drank too much and smoked like he got paid for it. He slugged peo­ple and shot guys and never got pulled in by the cops.”

“Man­nix” had stylish open­ing cred­its and a driv­ing mu­si­cal theme by Lalo Schifrin and was also un­usu­ally vi­o­lent for its time. As Man­nix, Mr. Con­nors was con­stantly crash­ing through win­dows, slid­ing down drain­pipes, be­ing chased by he­li­copters or hav­ing his con­vert­ible forced off the road.

Ac­cord­ing to one count, he was shot 17 times and sus­tained 55 con­cus­sions dur­ing the se­ries’ 194 episodes. Mr. Con­nors did many of the stunts him­self and sus­tained a bro­ken wrist and dis­lo­cated shoul­der while mak­ing the show.

Yet he al­ways man­aged to climb back in his dark green Dodge Dart (or, later, a Ply­mouth Bar­racuda, then a Dodge Chal­lenger, then a Chevro­let Ca­maro) and dial up Peggy on his car phone to let her know he was on the way.

Mr. Con­nors was nom­i­nated four times for Emmy Awards and won a Golden Globe. In 1970, Fisher be­came the first black actress to win an Emmy. As Peggy, she por­trayed a sin­gle mother whose hus­band, a po­lice of­fi­cer, had been killed in the line of duty. Work­ing for Man­nix, she went un­der­cover, was some­times cap­tured by kid­nap­pers and in­vari­ably had to nurse her in­jured boss back to health. Their re­la­tion­ship stopped just short of ro­mance.

Man­nix never failed to no­tice a stylish woman, but if there was a case to be solved, he would leave her stand­ing with a ca­sual “No, baby” or “Maybe later.” Then he was off in his con­vert­ible, rac­ing to a crim­i­nal hide­out to rough up a few crooks and hand them over to the po­lice.

“We made the char­ac­ter vul­ner­a­ble . . . . He could be suck­ered in by a soft story or a pretty face,” Mr. Con­nors told the Los An­ge­les Times in 1997. “I think peo­ple thought he was a very nor­mal kind of guy do­ing a job.”

Man­nix oc­ca­sion­ally spoke Ar­me­nian in the show — a nod to Mr. Con­nors’s her­itage. He was born Krekor Il­e­vado Oha­nian in Fresno, Calif., on Aug. 15, 1925. His fa­ther was a lawyer.

Known as Jay Oha­nian in his youth, Mr. Con­nors served in the Army Air Forces dur­ing World War II, then at­tended the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Los An­ge­les on a bas­ket­ball schol­ar­ship and the G.I. Bill. (He played for the Hall of Fame coach John Wooden.)

At a bas­ket­ball game, the film di­rec­tor Wil­liam A. Well­man no­ticed that the 6-foot-1 Mr. Con­nors (then Oha­nian) had an ex­pres­sive face and voice and sug­gested he might have a fu­ture as an ac­tor. He switched his col­lege stud­ies from pre-law to theater arts and grad­u­ated from UCLA in 1951.

Bor­row­ing his bas­ket­ball nick­name, he was known as “Touch Con­nors” early in his act­ing ca­reer. (The name Con­nors ap­pears to have been cho­sen at ran­dom.) He had his first film role in 1952, op­po­site Joan Craw­ford and Jack Palance in the noirish “Sud­den Fear.” He ap­peared with John Wayne in the 1953 avi­a­tion thriller “Is­land in the Sky.”

In 1956, he played a shep­herd in the bib­li­cal epic “The Ten Com­mand­ments,” then — adopt­ing the name Mike Con­nors — starred in the short-lived TV de­tec­tive se­ries “Tightrope” in 1959 and 1960. He also ap­peared in sev­eral films, play­ing a gen­tle­man gam­bler in the 1966 re­make of “Stage­coach,” with Bing Crosby and Ann-Mar­gret.

Af­ter “Man­nix,” Mr. Con­nors starred in an­other TV crime drama, “To­day’s FBI,” but it was can­celed in 1982 af­ter one sea­son. He played an Air Force colonel in the 1988-1989 TV minis­eries “War and Re­mem­brance” and guest­starred in sev­eral other shows, in­clud­ing “Two and a Half Men.”

Survivors in­clude his wife of 67 years, Mary Lou Wells of En­cino, Calif.; a daugh­ter, Dana Con­don; and a grand­daugh­ter. A son, Matthew Gun­nar Con­nors, died in 2007.

In 1997, Mr. Con­nors reprised his Man­nix role on Dick Van Dyke’s med­i­cal mystery drama “Di­ag­no­sis Mur­der.” They com­bined their ex­pe­ri­ence and wil­i­ness to solve a mur­der that had re­mained a mystery in a 1973 episode of “Man­nix.”

Re­runs of “Man­nix” oc­ca­sion­ally ap­peared on tele­vi­sion but, over the years, fan clubs and web­sites devoted to the se­ries sprang up, urg­ing that the se­ries be re­leased on DVD. Many classic de­tec­tive shows, in­clud­ing “Ko­jak,” “Columbo” and “Mag­num P.I.,” were available, but for some rea­son “Man­nix” stayed in the vault.

“We had a bet­ter av­er­age [rat­ing] than ‘The Rockford Files’ or ‘Hawaii Five-O’ over eight years,” Mr. Con­nors told The Post in 2007. “And yet it’s like it never oc­curred, it never ex­isted, it never hap­pened.”

“Man­nix” fi­nally be­gan to ap­pear in a dig­i­tal for­mat in 2008, in­tro­duc­ing Mr. Con­nors to a new gen­er­a­tion of view­ers.

Even so, “Man­nix” was an un­for­get­table part of 1970s pop cul­ture. In a 1992 episode of “Se­in­feld,” Ge­orge Costanza — the char­ac­ter played by Ja­son Alexan­der — sug­gested that he and Jerry Se­in­feld might have to es­cape a limou­sine by jump­ing out while it was mov­ing.

“Who are you,” Se­in­feld asked, “Man­nix?”

JONATHAN ALCORN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Mr. Con­nors was nom­i­nated four times for Emmy Awards and won a Golden Globe for his role as a pri­vate eye in “Man­nix.”

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