Thursday, January 26, 2017

Mike Connors, star of action detective show “Mannix,” dies at age 91

I didn’t get the memo where my childhood was about to be flashing in front of my eyes at least two consecutive nights but here we are. Today, when the news came of actor Mike Connors’ death, it was sad. Sadder still was the Facebook trending topic—“Mike Conners”—as the social media millennials didn’t quite realize how his name was spelled. I’m convinced they couldn’t do a better job with Krekor Ohanian, Jr., which was his name at birth, on August 15, 1925.

No matter how well we think we know our childhood television favorites, because they’ve been in our living rooms as our guests all our childhood, we really don’t know them at all. And yet, we feel like they’re family, or at least I perceive many of us feel that way. And yet, at age 91, it’s not entirely unexpected that we’d lose another beloved actor at this point, but seeing it happen the day after we lost Mary Tyler Moore was sad.

Sources shared that young Ohanian served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, and upon discharge attended UCLA on a basketball scholarship, majoring in pre-law. Legend has it he was discovered while on the basketball court. From the web site tvbanter.net,

"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."

Ironically, the source failed to mention that Connors was playing basketball for iconic Coach John Wooden at UCLA.

This image is by Boris Yaro of the L.A. Times, at a dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 1973. Coach Wooden and his wife were the celebrities but clearly it was Mike Connors whose presence also brought an extra special spotlight to the occasion.

Mike met his wife, Mary Lou, in the 1950s when they were students at UCLA, as columnist Bob Talbert learned when he interviewed him. They had two children, son Matthew Gunner Ohanian (1958–2007) and daughter Dana Lee Connors (1960-).

At the time of the article in 1973, Mike was 46 years old and pulling in over $20,000 for each episode of “Mannix.” Imagine the modest weekly sum compared to the millions per episode earned by actors in half-hour episodes of “The Big Bang Theory.” Today’s actors have no real concept of what little the stars of yesteryear, beloved stars, and high-caliber dramatic actors at that, had to live on and make it last.

Nor, do any of these modern-day stars know what it was like to take the Sunday newspaper TV magazine or “TV Guide” and circle the episodes you wanted to make sure and watch each week. Printed on paper, not a sequence of shows scrolled through on your smartphone. But enough about the grand old days of Baby Boomer youth. Or not. Just one more thought.

The commitment of television stars to a TV series was driven by ratings and advertising dollars, then as now, and yet just like the compensation for professional athletes over the past 40 years, the discrepancy in base pay and reward pay is absurd. And yet, it’s the nature of the business.

Fortunately for audiences in the 1960s and 1970s, viewers could count on substantially more quality back then each week than today, when we complain because there are 300 channels and “nothing on worth watching” at times. In the 1960s and 1970s, you had CBS, ABC, NBS, and eventually PBS. And you got up and walked across the room to change the channel on your black and white. Middle America didn’t have regular color TV sets with remotes in every living room until many years later.

And, while we’re comparing, an episode of “Mannix” would stand up every bit as strong as does an episode of “NCIS” or even an episode of “Murder She Wrote.” in reruns today. Crime dramas are ever as popular among audiences today.

“Mannix” was co-created by the team of Bruce Geller, Richard Levinson and William Link. TV fans should recognize those names instantly. Bruce Geller, credited as “Developer” also created “Mission Impossible as well as wrote scripts for several popular 1950s and 1960s shows including “Zane Grey Theatre” and “Have Gun—Will Travel.” Geller was also a songwriter and scored stage plays in his talent repertoire.

You probably know Levinson as a writer and producer who, with Link, co-created “Murder, She Wrote,” and “Columbo” and “Ellery Queen.” William Link also created “The Cosby Mysteries,” which lasted for 18 episodes in the mid-1990s, and he wsa co-developer of “Ellery Queen.”

Now you remember the NBC Mystery Movie rotation with “Columbo,” “McCloud,” and “McMillan & Wife? For one year, 1970, the rotation included “Ellery Queen.” Those were the days of a guaranteed prime-time mystery for at least two hours each Sunday. So, looking at Mannix, you recall Joe Campanella in the first five seasons portraying Lew Wickersham and even Robert Reed was in 22 episodes as Lieutenant Adam Tobias, which was a breakout role for him. Of course, Reed would ultimately star as Mike Brady in “The Brady Bunch.”

One of the most progressive shows at its time, when few African-American actresses were cast in lead roles, Gail Fisher portrayed Peggy Fisher, Mannix’s assistant, whose husband was a police officer killed on duty.

“Mannix” ran from 1967–1975 and began as the final show produced by Desilu Productions, before transitioning to Paramount Television. In all, 194 episodes were filmed and broadcast. Just like “Mission Impossible,” the catchy opening theme of “Mannix” was written by the iconic Lalo Schifrin: There are bonus points if you remember what company Mannix initially worked for. (Hint: it begins with the letter ‘I’.)

Ironically, the show was almost “killed” by the people who brought it to life.

“ At the end of its fifth season, ‘Mannix’ has climbed to sixth in the overall rating game, a superb place. Last year CBS layed it in against NBC’s Mystery Movie (that means ‘Columbo’) and the ABC movie blockbusters like ‘Patton’ and Love Story.’ It was ratings murder even ‘Mannix’ couldn’t solve.”

Ironic, then, because “Columbo” was created by two of the three people who created “Mannix,” Richard Levinson and William O. Link. Don’t you know they had to be sitting there smiling all season? Either way, they won.

Precious free time away from filming the show (per the Cincinnati Enquire (8.14.73, page 29) would find the Connors family “watching son, Gunnar, play Little League shortstop and daughter, Dana, riding in horse shows.” Mike and Mary Lou also spent much time with dear friends Marty Allen and his wife, Frenchie, and they were often spotted eating at Nicky Blair’s on Sunset Strip and playing pinball at the arcade next door.

Another weekend both the Connors’ and the French families “flying to Dallas with Bob Hope to entertain some 500 POWs in the Cotton Bowl.” We who grew up in those days know, but millennials have no idea, of what it was like to have Bob Hope’s leadership in entertaining the troops when they returned home or were away from home overseas. He was always successful in securing America’s favorite entertainers and celebrities to join him in those tributes.

Outside of his acting, you couldn’t say that Mike Connors was a high-profile celebrity. He and his family remained cloistered away from the brighter lights and followed his instincts to live conservatively and save his money. In 2009, the four-time Golden Globe winner was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, who asked, “Did you fit in with the Hollywood mentality?” “When you first got successful in this business, most people that I started with went off the deep end with big, fancy cars and houses they couldn’t afford, and I tried to stay away from that. I tried to realize that everything comes to an end and to try to accept what was there at the moment.”

Years before “Mannix,” Connors was the character Nick Stone in the TV show, “Tightrope,” an undercover police agent who infiltrated the underworld to expose gangsters and every episode he changed his name. It aired from 1959 through 1960 and was described as “He walks a tightrope between life and death as a police undercover man!” The show’s theme was composed by the great George Duning, and you’ll see from the credits he was billed as “Michael Connors.” You’ll enjoy the vintage “Aqua Velva” commercial, too as well as Connors’ pitch for Williams ‘Lectric Shave’ as the J. B. Williams Company also made Aqua Velva!

In the late 1990s, given his deep unforgettable voice, he was selected to voice the character Chipacles in the TV series Hercules, In 2007, Connors final credited appeared in an episode of “Two and a Half Men,” and my hunch is that Chuck Lorre had been a Mannix fan as a kid and well, you know. In 2009, Connors and his wife would celebrate 60 years of marriage and he joked, “The first 59 were the toughest,” adding, “I just try to enjoy life and realize how lucky I’ve been.” In 1976, Philadelphia TV writer noted that Connors “did a pilot for a series that was to have been called ‘Ohanian,’ about a former homicide detective who ran a charter boat service.” At the time Connors recalled “ABC convinced me that they wanted more action (than Mannix) in the pilot. Then when it ran, they said, ‘It looks like Mannix on the water.” That’s often a problem with actors who make a series or character so believably lifelike that they can easily get branded for the rest of their careers. At least the TV show was to be named for Connors’ real-life name, even though it didn’t end up as a broadcast series.

Connors was most proud of his Armenian roots, and in 2014, he was honored at the ARPA International Film Festival (presented by the ARPA Foundation for Film Music and Art), celebrating independent cinema, and in the beautiful tribute material online, they shared a favorite quote by Connors:

“If nothing else…just do the right thing.”

Absolutely, the wisest thing said all day. #RIP Mike Connors and thanks for all the years of entertainment you gave us.

8 comments:

  1. I'll miss just knowing he's not around anymore. Mannix was my first introduction to fandom and fan fiction when I was 12 or 13. I never missed an episode. He was my 2nd favourite PI next to Jim Rockford (though my first in terms of time LOL). He was ruggedly handsome and had a heart of gold and he got belted over the head and shot regularly enough to satisfy the hurt/comfort love in me. I remember Robert Reed playing Adam Tobias too.Oh and the answer to your question about who he originally worked for was Intertect (I think). I have to admit I cried all day when James Garner died in 2014 and I admit openly to being just as teary today when I heard Mike Connors had passed. They both had long an I hope, good and fulfilling lives, but I'll miss them both always. Thanks for such a great write up about him, Dawn. I really enjoyed reading this. "bye, Mannix!" RiP, Mike xxx

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  2. Thank you, Annie. We share many of the same wonderful memories. You're right, it was Intertec!

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  4. Thank you, very nice write-up. (Pretty sure it was "IntertecT" with a 'T' on the end. ;))

    My Dad and I watched the later years of the original airings of Mannix and now I watch it on MeTV.

    It's just as good now if not better. He was perfect in the role and I always liked him a lot.

    Also remembered and admired for his WWII service in the Air Force. I wish I could find out more about that.

    He will be missed.

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    1. Thanks, David; I've changed the spelling of InterecT per your great memory! Check out page 71 of this publication, http://www.airforcemag.com/MagazineArchive/Magazine%20Documents/1999/April%201999/0499famous.pdf and if you're on ancestry.com you can find his draft card (he was known as his real name, Krekor Ohanian, while serving). And, I think you'll like some extra info from the Fresno Bee newspaper: http://www.fresnobee.com/entertainment/ent-columns-blogs/rick-bentley/article129943259.html

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    2. Thanks, Dawn - I'll check out those links, and if I find out anything else of interest, I'll share it here. :)

      Take care,

      David

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  5. I grew up in Encino where the the Ohanians lived on Rancho St. we had lots of mutual friends. I use to run into he and Gunnar aroround town. I was sad to hear that Gunnar passed so young to.
    Rip

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  6. I loved watching Mannix when I was a teenager in the early 70's. Now i enjoy catching it on MeTV. I was sad when i heard of his passing and just thinking that he's not with us now. So many of his generation are passing on.

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