Saturday, January 28, 2017

Two TV Icons Depart the Stage

(Above) Mike Connors on the June 24, 1972, TV Guide.

What a dismal, discouraging last week we’ve all had to experience. While Donald Trump has done his damnedest, through one executive order after another, to undermine America’s values and leadership in the world, we’ve also witnessed the deaths of three Hollywood performers with ties to crime and mystery fiction.

First off, of course, there was 80-year-old Mary Tyler Moore, about whom I wrote here. But while Moore’s success really derived from her work in situation comedies rather than on TV crime dramas, the same cannot be said of Mike Connors, who died on Thursday at age 91. Born Krekor Ohanian in Fresno, California, on August 15, 1925, the Armenian-descended former college basketball standout appeared in several movies and did guest shots on small-screen programs such as Mr. and Mrs. North, City Detective, M Squad, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and Maverick before landing the lead in Tightrope! (1959–1960), playing a deep-undercover police officer charged with infiltrating criminal gangs. After that program was cancelled, and following Connors’ work in films such as Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die (1966), he returned to television as Joe Mannix, a notably hard-headed Los Angeles private eye, in the William Link/Richard Levinson-created CBS series Mannix (1967-1975). In its obituary of Connors, The New York Times recalled that
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. …

“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.

TV Guide issues of May 18, 1968, and October 31, 1970.

Meanwhile, in a 2014 retrospective of Mannix, Stephen Bowie wrote:
Likable but flinty, Connors was a tough guy who didn’t have to show off. An idealist and a nice guy, Mannix was perfectly willing to take on a lost little girl as a client and negotiate his fee in lunch money (never actually collected, of course). Connors had a rare sincerity that kept scenes like that from getting corny. (When cynical private-eye shows like Harry O and The Rockford Files made a point of their protagonists’ pragmatic eye for a buck, it was mainly Mannix they were rebuking.) Working out of a comfy Spanish-styled home office, dressed in plaid sport coats made out of fabric as thick as carpet, driving a snazzy muscle car painted a hideous shade of army-Jeep green, Joe Mannix was functional but square. It was all of a piece. Mannix was the audience’s uncle or its brother-in-law—that quiet, comforting fellow who never let on that he’d mowed down a whole squadron of advancing enemies during the war. (Joe’s actual back-story included service in Korea; another often-mocked TV trope, the one where the deranged vet returns to kill off all the members of his old platoon, comes more from Mannix than any other single show.) Mannix’s secretary, Peggy Fair, was cannily drawn to underscore his avuncular solidity. Played by Gail Fisher, one of the more prominent African-American actors on television at the time, Peggy was the widow of a cop, so naturally he’d never make a pass. She was also a single mother, which meant that the producers could show Mannix in surrogate dad mode whenever little Toby (Mark Stewart) turned up.
Unfortunately, after eight seasons on the air, Mannix (which TV blogger Mitchell Hadley says was, “next to The Rockford Files, … probably the most loved, most well-remembered P.I. show of the era”), was dropped from American prime-time viewing schedules, though it has continued to show up in syndication, and was released in DVD format between 2008 and 2012. Connors spent a few years after that doing teleflicks (such as 1980’s Casino) and filling guest spots on programs that included Police Story, before landing his last starring role in a TV crime drama: Today’s F.B.I., a 1981-1982 revamp of the original Efrem Zimbalist Jr. series, on which he played a “veteran ‘G-Man,’” Ben Slater, commanding a select group of agents.

He subsequently featured in shows such as The Love Boat, Murder, She Wrote, and a 1990s revival of Gene Barry’s Burke’s Law, and reprised his Mannix role in a 1997 episode of Diagnosis: Murder (which, at least for now, you can watch here). “All told,” says A.V. Club, “he ended his career with more than a hundred credits to his name, and worked steadily in the business for a total of 65 years.” According to the Times, Connors died on January 26, from “complications of leukemia, which had been diagnosed a week earlier.”

* * *

Just one day after word of Mike Connors’ passing, news broke that Barbara Hale—the striking actress best known for playing resourceful and highly observant secretary Della Street on Raymond Burr’s 1957-1966 series, Perry Mason—had died “peacefully” at her home in Sherman Oaks, California. She was 94 years old.

Born in DeKalb, Illinois, on April 18, 1922, Hale started her adulthood wanting to be an artist, and doing modeling work to pay for her education at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. The modeling attracted Hollywood’s interest. In his blog, A Shroud of Thoughts, Terence Towles Canote notes that Hale “signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures. She made her film debut in 1943 in an uncredited, bit part in Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943).” He adds: “[I]t must be remembered that she had a highly successful film career prior to starting her long run on Perry Mason. She played opposite some of Hollywood’s most popular leading men, including Robert Mitchum in West of the Pecos (1945 film), Jimmy Stewart in The Jackpot (1951), James Cagney in A Lion Is in the Streets (1953), and Rock Hudson in Seminole (1953). She even received top billing in two films: The Window (1949) and Lorna Doone (1951). While many of us loved her as Della Street, she played so many more roles during her career.”

(Left) Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale on TV Guide, March 19, 1960.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, in the late 1950s, “Hale was mulling retirement to raise her three young children with her husband, actor Bill Williams (The Adventures of Kit Carson), when producer Gail Patrick Jackson approached her about playing Della on Perry Mason. She quickly accepted the gig when she discovered that Burr, her old friend from RKO, was going to star as the fictional defense attorney in the series based on the Erle Stanley Gardner mystery novels.” Hale is credited with participating in all 271 episodes of that CBS courtroom drama, opposite Burr, William Hopper (who played private detective Paul Drake), and William Talman (as persistently unsuccessful Los Angeles District Attorney Hamilton Burger). For her portrayal of Street, in 1959 Hale received an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series. A year later, she was immortalized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Hale maintained her acting career after Perry Mason, appearing in big-screen pictures such as Airport (1970) and The Giant Spider Invasion (1975), and popping up on TV screens as a guest on Ironside (playing a murder suspect), Adam-12, Marcus Welby, M.D., and The Greatest American Hero, which starred her son, William Katt. “In 198[5],” explains Canote, “she reprised her role as Della Street in the television reunion movie Perry Mason Returns alongside Raymond Burr in the title role. The TV movie proved so successful that there would be 26 more Perry Mason TV movies starring Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale.” In the first nine of those, Katt played P.I. Paul Drake Jr. (The original Drake, Hopper, had died in 1970.)

Reports are that Barbara Hale perished as a result of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In its obituary of the actress, The New York Times recalls that, despite having played one of the most memorable secretaries on television, Hale “never learned shorthand and could type only 33 words a minute.”

READ MORE:Mike Connors, an Appreciation” and “Mannix vs. Spies,” by Bill Koenig (The Spy Command); “Dinner with Perry and Della,”
by Max Allan Collins.

1 comment:

John said...

Nice tribute post, J. Indeed, "Mannix" was the grittier of many detective shows of that era. And, what can you add about Mary Tyler Moore and Barbara Hale? Two fine ladies from a vanished time.