Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #20

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Series Title: Mannix | Years: 1967-1975, CBS | Starring: Mike Connors, Gail Fisher, Joseph Campanella, Ward Wood, Robert Reed |
Theme Music: Lalo Schifrin

I have recently been making my way through the newly released DVD set of Mannix--The First Season. I was just a kid when Mannix debuted in 1967, so I don’t really remember watching it much, except every once in a while with my maternal grandfather, when my brother, Matt, and I stayed over at his house on weekends. It was a 10 p.m. show, after all (though it later moved to 9:30 p.m. on Sunday nights), and in those days that was considered awfully damn late for children to be up watching crime dramas. By the time I became an ardent viewer of TV detective shows in 1972, Mannix was nearing the end of its run and I was less interested in traditional private-eye shows than in other, more stylized series such as Columbo, Banacek, Assignment: Vienna, and Banyon.

It’s only now that I am finally taking a close look at Mannix. And liking what I see.

The show was created by William Link and Richard Levinson, the same pair who gave us Columbo, Ellery Queen, Blacke’s Magic, Murder, She Wrote, and assorted other memorable mystery series. However, in his wonderfully idiosyncratic commentary accompanying Mannix--The First Season, Link pretty much disavows any association with the Mike Connors series past his co-writing a pilot that he says bore little resemblance to what was actually shown. Why? As Stephen Bowie of The Classic TV History Blog explains, Link and Levinson (the latter of whom died in 1987) had intended to offer the American television audience “a revision of the private eye genre that anticipated the postmodern pulp reformations of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or Jeremy Kagan’s The Big Fix.”
Their hero, Joe Mannix, was not the familiar hard-boiled loner archetype, operating out of a dingy office, with a wise-cracking secretary out front and a battered fedora and trenchcoat on the rack in the corner. Instead he was a cog in a wheel, one of a fleet of impeccably dressed operatives in the employ of Intertect, a corporate detective agency crammed with high-tech equipment. (Computers the size of a minivan that shuffled around stacks of punchcards, in other words.)

Intertect was inspired by Link and Levinson’s experiences at Universal, the first of the Hollywood studios to track its employees by computer. The Universal of the sixties was run by former talent agents inherited from its parent company MCA, who dressed in black suits and had offices in the fearsome obsidian monolith known as “The Black Tower,” a modern glass executive building that loomed over the front gates. Lou Wickersham, the head of Intertect, was an insider joke on Lew Wasserman, the legendarily ruthless head of Universal. (The name Wickersham was derived from “Wasserman” and Lankershim Boulevard, the North Hollywood address of Universal’s main entrance. Joseph Campanella, who played Wickersham, once told me that his slight resemblance to Wasserman was a factor in his casting.) Joe Mannix, the series’ nonconformist hero, was the only Intertect operative with the inclination to buck Wickersham’s unfeeling, bottom-line approach to sleuthing.
However, Link and Levinson were elbowed out of the project early. It was taken over by Bruce Geller, who’d previously created Mission: Impossible and would go on to cast Jack Palance as a detective in Bronk (1975-1976), together with producer Wilton Schiller, who had worked on The Fugitive, Ben Casey, Leave It to Beaver, and The M Squad. Bowie writes that
In their hands, the conflict between Mannix and Lou Wickersham remained a constant element of the series, but it lacked any depth or metaphorical meaning. The two characters simply bickered like unhappy spouses, and the clash between them never varied much in content or intensity. It is fascinating to speculate as to how Link and Levinson might have developed their idea. Might Mannix have become a prototype for the serialized drama of the eighties, with a character conflict at its center that grew more complex and gripping as time went on?
Geller and Schiller wanted more action in Mannix. They soon found that writers other than Link and Levinson had trouble integrating what was then considered high technology into their story lines. In most of the episodes from Season One, Mannix would get his assignment through boss Wickersham, then head out to investigate, mostly on his own. Every once in a while, there would be some good use made of those monster computers at Intertect (as in tracking a suspect or gathering background information); but most of the time you were reminded of their existence only by the fact that Mannix and Wickersham contrived to use them as a whirring, clicking, tape-reel-spinning backdrop while arguing over Joe’s latest case. The scriptwriters were more comfortable sending Mannix out to throw punches or exchange coy smiles with curvaceous suspects than they were making him accountable to a bunch of white-coated nerds in a windowless computer room. Which apparently got Link and Levinson’s collective goat, because Mannix came under attack as overly violent--and the two men who’d created it but had nothing to do with its continuation got the blame.

Although some critics appreciated the novelty of Mannix being a lone wolf working inside a corporate pack, CBS didn’t see a future in it. (A similar obeisance to punch-the-clock crime-solving may also have contributed to the demise of a later Link and Levinson series, Tenafly, which starred James McEachin as a fisticuffs-averse L.A. private eye with a family.) So by the second season, the computers were out and Mannix had moved into an office of his own at 17 Paseo Verde in West Los Angeles. He’d also taken on a secretary, Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher), the pretty African-American widow of an old cop friend, Marcus Fair, who’d met his end in the line of duty, while trying to stop a jewelry heist. Replacing Wickersham as Mannix’s more by-the-book sounding boards were a succession of police lieutenants, perhaps the best-remembered being Robert Reed (who’d played a mild-mannered architect-father in The Brady Bunch and a lawyer in the more highly regarded The Defenders).

Even during the first season, and certainly thereafter, Joe Mannix had room and time enough to become a distinctive, well-liked character. (Some fans became so involved, that they took bets on just how far Wickersham could push Mannix before the two finally had a parting of the ways, and on whether the private eye and Peggy were engaged in a secret off-camera love affair.) Actor Mike Connors--whose previous series, Tightrope (1959-1960), about a police undercover agent infiltrating gangs, had also been derided for excessive violence--brought to Mannix a not-too-tough-guy charm that played well against his hard-boiled TV persona.

While we didn’t learn a whole hell of a lot about the protagonist’s background in the series’ opening season, more was revealed during Mannix’s succeeding seven years on the air. He was a Korean War vet (a fighter pilot), born to California vineyard owners; and like the actor who played him, Mannix was Armenian American (Connors himself was born Krikor Ohanian). He also had a black belt in karate, which came in handy as the writers set him up for escalating abuse at the hands of bad guys. As Richard Meyers recalls in TV Detectives:
In the first season, one show featured a battle royal between Mannix and a huge guard in a mud puddle. By his eighth and last season Mannix was not even letting things like temporary blindness and broken bones get in the way.

Another justly famous fight scene involved Mannix subduing a gun-wielding doctor and a syringe-waving nurse with both arms in a cast. Filled with screeching tires, flame-spitting guns, and flying fists, Mannix ranks as one of the most thunderously satisfying private-eye fests ever made. It was not just the mindless violence of Tightrope or the mindful investigation of Naked City, it was a well-balanced combination of the two that worked beautifully.
All of the show’s major elements--the fights, the cars, the women--were nicely introduced in Mannix’s main title sequence. The version embedded at the top of this post comes from the series’ post-Intertect years; the original can be found here. While I’m sure there will be some younger Rap Sheet readers who think this opening is hopelessly old-fashioned, it does an excellent job of setting the tone for the show through a succession of video panels. (In commentary included with the DVD set Mannix--The First Season, Connors tells the rather humorous tale behind the single sustained shot in that opener, which shows him running across a bridge, seemingly one step ahead of pursuers.)

And then there’s that bouncy, jazzy theme ... I might never have thought to use it for a hard-boiled detective series, but it definitely works. Furthermore, it has a terrific provenance. Probably because executive producer Geller had worked with him before, responsibility for the Mannix theme was handed over to Argentinean-American composer Lalo Schifrin, who had previously created one of the all-time-best TV themes, for Mission: Impossible. (Among Schifrin’s other credits are the themes for the films Bullitt and Dirty Harry, as well as the original theme for Starsky & Hutch.) Unlike darker, more obvious detective-show themes, the music introducing Mannix suggested that viewers were in for something a little bit different. And as I’ve discovered by watching the first season episodes recently, the show holds up surprisingly well for one that made its debut more than 40 years ago.

Like all good things, though, Mannix couldn’t last. Even with Telly SavalasKojak as its Sunday night lead-in during its eighth and final season, the show couldn’t hold onto viewers seduced away by the ABC Sunday Night Movie and the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie. It’s ironic to think that another Link and Levinson creation, Columbo--a core player in the Mystery Movie franchise--contributed to the failure of Mannix, the child they’d disowned.

Mike Connors went on to star in one more series, Today’s F.B.I., a creaky, 1981-1982 resurrection of the original Efrem Zimbalist Jr. series, and he’s guested over the years on a variety of other TV shows, including The Love Boat, The Commish, Burke’s Law, and Two and a Half Men. In a 1997 episode of the Dick Van Dyke medical mystery series Diagnosis: Murder (“Hard-Boiled Murder”), penned by novelist-screenwriter Lee Goldberg, Connors even had a chance to reprise the role that had made him famous, playing P.I. Joe Mannix in a story that was actually the sequel to a 1973 Mannix ep called “Little Girl Lost.” Goldberg has written that it was the “highest rated Diagnosis: Murder episode ever.”

Mike Connors will celebrate his 83rd birthday this coming Friday, August 15. I can’t for the life of me think of a better way to toast his career as an actor than to recognize Mannix as The Rap Sheet’s latest top TV crime drama opener.

READ MORE:Faces of Murder,” by Marty McKee (Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot); “Mannix,” by Steven Thompson (The Booksteve Channel).

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