LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com/AP) — Mike Connors, who starred as a hard-hitting private eye on the long-running television series “Mannix,” has died. He was 91.
The actor died surrounded by family Thursday afternoon at a Tarzana hospital from complications of leukemia. The disease had only been diagnosed a week earlier, said his son-in-law, Mike Condon.
“Mannix” ran for eight years on CBS beginning in 1967. Viewers were intrigued by the tall, smartly dressed, well-spoken detective who could mix it up with the burliest of thugs and leap on the hood of a racing car to prevent an escape. Episodes normally climaxed with a brawl that left the culprits bruised and beaten.
His office also seemed to be shot up numerous times.
“Up until Mannix, most private investigators were hard-nosed, cynical guys who lived in a seedy area and had no emotions,” Connors theorized in 1997. “Mannix got emotionally involved. He was not above being taken advantage of.”
In the first season, Joe Mannix was a self-employed Los Angeles private investigator hired by a firm that used computers and high-tech equipment to uncover crime. The ratings were lukewarm. Connors feared the series would be canceled but it was produced by Lucille Ball’s Desilu studio, and CBS was reluctant to antagonize its biggest star.
In the second season, Mannix opened his own office and fought the low-ifes by himself. The ratings zoomed.
When “Mannix” was revised the office acquired a secretary, Peggy Fair, played by black actress Gail Fisher. Lead black characters in the mid to late 60’s were still rare on network TV. Fisher won an Emmy for the role and two Golden Globes and was the first black actress to win either. She died in 2000 at the age of 65.
The network was concerned that affiliates in the South might object to her character but “there wasn’t any kind of backlash,” Connors recalled.
Another highlight was the theme music by legendary screen composer Lalo Schifrin.
Connors also starred in the TV series “Tightrope!” and “Today’s FBI.” Each lasted one season.
His movie and TV career stretched from the 1950s to 2007, when he had a guest role on “Two and a Half Men.”
So identified as Joe Mannix, the also played the role in guest spots on “Here’s Lucy” and “Diagnosis Murder.”
Connors made his film debut in 1952’s “Sudden Fear,” which starred Joan Crawford. Other films included “Island in the Sky,” ”The Ten Commandments,” and a remake of “Stagecoach.”
Connors, born Krekor Ohanian in 1925, was from an Armenian community in Fresno. He served in the Air Force during World War II and played basketball at the University of California, Los Angeles.
After graduation he studied law for two years but his good looks and imposing presence attracted him to acting. In an era when film actors were given names like Tab and Rock, he appeared as Touch Connors — “Touch” being his basketball nickname. He later changed it to Michael and finally, Mike.
Connors and his wife, Mary Lou, were married in 1949 and had two children: a son, Matthew, and a daughter, Dana. Their son, beset by hallucinations starting in his teens, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and before his death lived in a small residential care facility. Connors and his wife championed efforts to erase the stigma of mental illness.
In addition to his wife, daughter and son-in-law, Connors is survived by a granddaughter, Cooper Wills.
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