Question: I wasn't going to bore you with the history of this question, but I will anyway. A guy in the office and I got into this stupid contest where we'd take turns whistling TV theme songs and the other one would have to guess it. When I whistled Mannix, we got off on this discussion about the star and what he'd done. Was he on any shows before that? Thanks for answering this, if you do. Chris V., Warrington, Pa.
Televisionary: No problem, Chris, but first do you mind telling me what kind of job you have where you can fritter away the hours like that on the boss's dime? (I'm praying it's not one supported by my tax dollars. Then again, as long as you stick to TV tunes, okay by me.)Mannix star Mike Connors got his start in TV playing an unnamed undercover cop (he was occasionally referred to as Nick, but otherwise his name changed from week to week, depending on the identity he adopted) on CBS's Tightrope, which ran for a year beginning in September 1959. The "tightrope" of the title came from the idea that Connor's character was frequently caught between the organized crime world he was trying to crack and the cops who didn't know he was on their side.
However, saying that was Connors's start isn't quite accurate, since the actor was forced to get really creative in order to feed himself and weather a seven-year dry spell after the show went off the air. I'll say this for him: He was resourceful. "What happened was I discovered that even though Tightrope had bombed in the United States, it was a big hit in Latin America," he told TV Guide in 1972. "So I put together this act, with singing and dancing, and I did 10 weeks in Mexico and four weeks in South America. I was canceled out by the Venezuelan revolution. When I heard machine-gun fire just outside the club where I was appearing, I decided it was time to go home."
But hustling to make a living wasn't anything new to Connors, an Armenian-American born Krekor Ohanian in Fresno, Calif. He struggled for seven years before landing Tightrope (for some reason his droughts always came in sevens) and even when he did manage to put a deal together, nearly everybody did well but him. "At one point I was so desperate for work that I got a bunch of rich Armenian farmers to finance a movie for me at American International Pictures," Connors recalled. "It was a nine-day quickie called The Flesh and the Spur, and everyone made money out of it except me and my Armenian backers. We were such amateurs that the studio even charged their toilet paper against our budget."
Luckily, life turned around in a big way when Connors landed Mannix, a private-eye hit that was breathtakingly violent for its time. Though tough guy Joe Mannix started out working for a computer-oriented investigation firm when the series launched on CBS in the fall of 1967, by the following year he had his own agency in a building that also served as his living quarters. Dropping the high-tech sleuthing was the right move, particularly since Mannix inevitably punched and shot his way through his cases anyway, and the new setup meant the show was more true to the down-and-dirty detective genre.Audiences went for it and even critics, as mean as they could be one described Connors's acting range as "soaring from miniscule to tiny" had to admit that Mannix was a guilty pleasure. ("There is too much violence," TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory wrote, but then he went on to call the episode he watched "extremely engrossing, original and well-written.") All of which added up to a nice life for Connors, who at the time earned an estimated $25,000-plus per episode (24 a season), extra pay from the 67 overseas markets in which Mannix was shown, and a percentage of domestic and foreign profits coming in from his part-ownership of the series. Not too shabby.
And if the show was a little too violent, well, the actor tried to do his part to promote more peaceful ways of solving problems. "After five years, it's tough to come up with different resolutions to what are essentially the same stories," Connors said a little more than midway through the show's run (it left the air in 1975). "This past year we tended to favor what we call 'the dry dive' where the villain goes plunging to his death, usually by crashing through a picture window. That's because the networks are against violence and I can't kill the heavy with my gun anymore. So the heavy goes through the window instead. It's been a bonanza for the spun-sugar and mattress business."
Ah, Hollywood. The only town that can parse mayhem to the point where death by glass and gravity is considered a kinder, gentler demise than absorbing a slug or two.