Mike Connors, who broke free of years of supporting roles when he found stardom in the late 1960s as a maverick private investigator on the CBS series “Mannix,” which went on to enjoy an eight-season run, died on Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 91.
His son-in-law Mike Condon said the death, at a hospital, was caused by complications of leukemia, which had been diagnosed a week earlier, The Associated Press reported.
In the series, which had its premiere in 1967, Mr. Connors played the darkly handsome Joe Mannix, a Korean War veteran of (like Mr. Connors) Armenian descent who sleuthed his way around Los Angeles with flashy cars and a penchant for citing Armenian proverbs.
Unlike many a smooth TV private eye, Mannix took his lumps. The Washington Post, tabulating the wear and tear the character withstood over eight seasons, found that he had endured 17 gunshot wounds and 55 beatings that left him unconscious.
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The violence drew criticism in some quarters, but “Mannix” became the most popular crime series on television in an era punctuated by comedies like “All in the Family” and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” For several years it shared CBS’s Saturday night lineup with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” whose own star died on Wednesday.
“Mannix” made Mr. Connors one of the highest-paid television actors of the 1970s; by the end of its run he was earning $40,000 an episode (almost $180,000 in today’s dollars). The role brought him four Emmy Award nominations and a Golden Globe Award.
“Mannix” was also notable as one of the first regular series to provide a leading role to an African-American: Gail Fisher joined the show in its second season as Mannix’s secretary, frequent damsel in distress and occasional potential love interest. She died at 65 in 2000.
Mr. Connors was born Krekor Ohanian on Aug. 15, 1925, in Fresno, Calif. He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II, then enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he played basketball on a scholarship, earning the nickname “Touch” on the court. His father was a lawyer, many of whose clients were poor and would often pay him with fruit, vegetables or chickens, Mr. Connors told an interviewer.
His plans to study law were interrupted when the director William A. Wellman saw him on the basketball court and encouraged him to try acting. One of his first film roles was in Wellman’s 1953 adventure film, “Island in the Sky,” which starred John Wayne.
Under the name Touch Connors, he appeared in several low-budget B-movies (“Swamp Women,” “Flesh and the Spur”), many of them for the director Roger Corman, and at least one enduring film: “The Ten Commandments” (1956), in which he played a herder.
He bounced between film and television for much of the 1950s, appearing on numerous series, including “The Millionaire,” “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun — Will Travel.” He was also persuaded to change his first name to Michael and then Mike.
In 1959 Mr. Connors landed a lead role on the series “Tightrope,” on which he played an undercover agent with one revolver in his shoulder holster and another hidden behind his back. It received good ratings but was canceled after one season; complaints about excessive violence were cited as one factor — an issue that would resurface in “Mannix.”
The 1960s brought him more guest-starring roles on television (“The Untouchables,” “Perry Mason,” “The Red Skelton Hour”) as well as movie parts (supporting roles in “Harlow” and “Stagecoach” and a leading role in the panned spy-movie spoof “Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die”).
Then came “Mannix.” During its run Lucille Ball and Mr. Connors produced a crossover episode of her sitcom “Here’s Lucy,” titled “Lucy and Mannix Are Held Hostage.”
Mr. Connors used his fame from “Mannix” to publicize a then-underreported chapter in Armenian history by narrating “The Forgotten Genocide,” J. Michael Hagopian’s 1975 documentary about the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. He later narrated another Armenian-themed documentary, “Ararat Beckons,” by the same director.
He had another leading role in 1981, on the ABC crime series “Today’s FBI,” which lasted only one season. The rest of the 1980s and ’90s brought more TV guest appearances (“The Love Boat,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “Diagnosis: Murder,” in which he and several of his “Mannix” co-stars reprised their characters); parts on mini-series including “War and Remembrance,” based on the Herman Wouk novel; and various roles in films and TV movies.
He also appeared on a 2007 episode of the sitcom “Two and a Half Men.”
He is survived by Mary Lou Wells, his wife of 67 years; a daughter, Dena; and a granddaughter.
In talking about his career with Tom Weaver for the 2003 book “Eye on Science Fiction: 20 Interviews With Classic SF and Horror Filmmakers,” Mr. Connors recalled the 1950s as a time of both ambition and dreams deferred.
“My favorite actors in those days were Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Bill Holden,” he said, adding that he had admired them for their “natural-type acting” and had wished for roles like theirs.
“I knew the type of acting I liked — that very natural type of acting,” he said, “but I just wanted to be successful. So, whatever. I was willing to do anything that they’d hire me for.”
|Mike Connors as the detective in “Mannix,” which started in 1967 and became the era’s most popular crime series. Credit CBS Photo Archive|
'Mannix' star Mike Connors dies at 91
LOS ANGELES – 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 Los Angeles hospital from complications of leukemia that had 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.
"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 combatted low-lifes by himself. The ratings zoomed.
When "Mannix" was revised the office acquired a secretary, played by African-American actress Gail Fisher.
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."
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.
'Mannix' star Mike Connors dies at 91
Mike Connors, who played a hard-hitting private eye on the long-running TV series "Mannix," has died. He was 91.
His son-in-law, Mike Condon, says the actor died Thursday afternoon at a Los Angeles hospital from recently diagnosed leukemia. His death comes a day after another late ‘60s/early ‘70s TV star — Mary Tyler Moore — passed away.
"Mannix" debuted on CBS in 1967 and ran for eight years.
Viewers were intrigued by the smartly dressed, well-spoken Los Angeles detective who could still mix it up with thugs. Episodes normally climaxed with a brawl.
Connors once said that until "Mannix," TV private investigators were hard-nosed and cynical, while Mannix "got emotionally involved" in his cases.
Connors also starred in the short-lived TV shows "Tightrope" and "Today's FBI." His movie roles included "Sudden Fear" with Joan Crawford, "Island in the Sky," ''The Ten Commandments," and a remake of "Stagecoach."