September 2, 2015

Mannix - the detective who put his best fist forward

SURE HE COULD USE HIS FISTS, BUT JOE MANNIX WAS PRETTY GOOD WITH A GUN, TOO
My first memories of watching Mannix concern the sequence shown during the opening credits.  Specifically, there are two images that caught my attention: a race car flying off the track and exploding, and a fist.  The exploding race car (an early '60s Ferrari) was easy enough to explain (although I was always disappointed that the racing portion of the episode was minimal), but what about that fist?  Well, anyone who's seen more than one episode of Mannix will understand.

Mannix, which ran on CBS from 1967 to 1975, was a series that always seemed to have one foot in the past and the other in the future.  For its first season, private detective Joe Mannix (the wonderful Mike Connors) worked for a corporate agency named Intertect, where his boss Lew Wickersham (Joe Campanella), a man who saw the future of detective work based in computers, massive research, and probability matrices, served the traditional role - usually performed by a police detective frienemy - of "being the man Mannix gives a headache to".  With the corporate way cramping his style, Mannix goes out on his own for the second season, where his secretary Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher), one of the first black actresses to play a prominent regular role on a drama series.  These were both forward-looking aspects of a series that, as Mike Connors himself once admitted, was a throwback to the noir detectives of the '40s, bearing little resemblance to the real world of the modern-day gumshoe.

Mannix was another in a long line of series that, at one time or another, bore the title "most violent program on television."  It was a title that the series earned; I can't remember, off the top of my head, an episode in which Joe didn't engage in at least one or two fist-fights with an adversary.  Often, at least in the first fight, Mannix would absorb an unusual amount of punishment, particularly for a good guy; he was always being clobbered from behind, belted in the stomach, bushwhacked in an alley, used as human target practice - you name it.  Sometimes he'd suffer more than one of these indignities, and other times he'd get them more than once.  No matter; by the time the episode wrapped up, you could be certain Joe's adversary would get paid back double.  At least.

Bob and Ray did a parody of Mannix called "Blimmix," in which the protagonist was invariably beaten to a pulp by a thug.  And in other hands the series might have been hard to take, were it not for creator Bruce Geller (who was also responsible for Mission: Impossible), stars Connors and Fisher, and a series of intelligently written scripts.*  That allowed the series to move beyond cliche and presented us with a three-dimensional protagonist; one who really did care about his clients, didn't let cynicism rule his life, and was capable of forming warm, genuine relationships with people both inside and outside of work.  Joe Mannix wasn't a misogynist, a man who drank to forget, a shady operator, a wisecracking smartass.  He was a man who liked what he did, believed it had some worth, and got a sense of satisfaction out of helping people.  He also showed you could have a close platonic friendship with a member of the opposite sex (Peggy in particular, though there were others), without hopping in the sack.  JoAnn Paul's And Now, Back to Mannix provides a great overview of the many qualities that made Mannix different from the run-of-the-mill detective drama/police procedural.

*We shouldn't forget about Joe Campanella; though he appeared only in the first season, he was a great foil for Mannix; long-suffering, frustrated, always wondering why Mannix couldn't just follow the rules like everyone else.  In the hands of a lesser actor, Wickersham would have come across as a pill, but thanks to Campanella it was easy to sense the intelligence and warmth behind the blustery facade.

But for all that, there's one very good reason Mannix shows up on my Saturday-night lineup: it's a good, fun program.  Yes, I like seeing Joe beat the crap out of the bad guy.  Yes, it's satisfying when the killer gets hauled away from the cops (even if it's not as satisfying as seeing him get the crap beaten out of him).  The stories are interesting at least and compelling at best.  And, in case it hasn't been mentioned already, Mike Connors provides the perfect combination of hard, two-fisted action and intelligent, compassionate understanding, without becoming a cartoon caricature in either.

It worked with the viewers: Mannix was a consistently solid performer in the ratings, won several awards during its run, and left the airwaves after eight seasons and 194 episodes only because of a dispute over the re-airing of episodes in a late-night timeslot.  Next to The Rockford Files, it was probably the most loved, most well-remembered PI shows of the era.  We could use something like it on TV again today.

Alas, the one thing that keeps me from watching Mannix every Saturday night is that the season sets aren't cheap, and they don't come up for sale very often.  (Another reason why eBay is a couch potato's best friend.)  But whenever the disposable income goes up, another season set goes in the collection.  And it's an investment well worth it.

So to recap, here's the summary of the Hadley network's Saturday night lineup:

Mannix
Perry Mason
Mission: Impossible
Mystery Science Theater 3000

Next time: we begin Sunday's lineup with the most heroic G-man ever to roam the television airwaves.

7 comments:

  1. Since I was just a little kid when Mannix debuted (I was 6) I probably didn’t start watching the first run episodes until 1970 or ’71, so most of my memories of the show has to do with any time I caught the reruns. Though, I’m sure you know, hour long dramas were never rerun as much as half hour comedies.

    I recall the opening credits and especially that great jazzy theme song (which I have loaded on my iTunes and iPod) in fact, your Saturday night lineup has some memorable theme songs.

    Like I mentioned earlier, I recall Mannix mostly because of reruns, so you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that I’ve never seen ANY first season episode. I realize that there are specific rules and conditions on TV reruns and syndication, but for the life of me, I don’t know why Mannix season one never reran (or if it did, not often). It wasn’t B&W so they couldn’t use that excuse. Is it because it was so different compared to the rest of the show’s run?

    Oddly enough, I had the same problem with another of your Saturday shows. Prior to my getting the first season of Mission Impossible on DVD I’d never seen any of those shows. When MI was ever rerun it was always the Peter Graves seasons. I never got to see the young Steven Hill’s Briggs lead the team. Maybe the syndication rights only included the Phelps seasons? Who knows.

    TV can be confusing at times.

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  2. I'm not sure there's ever been a more likeable character on TV than Joe Mannix. I was pleased to see that Mike Connors is still with us. He turned 90 in August, and has been married to the same woman since 1949.

    The first two seasons of Mannix were up at YouTube (I watched them all earlier this year) but I don't know if they're still there.

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  3. First things first:

    The original Mannix format (man vs. machines) was created by Richard Levinson and William Link. When they moved to Universal TV, they sold off their property to Bruce Geller at Desilu, where the first CBS season was spent "on the bubble".
    Reportedly, Lucy Ball strongarmed the network into a renewal, and Geller brought in a writing team to overhaul Mannix in toto: Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts.
    Goff and Roberts were Old Hollywood veterans. Their Films included several James Cagney vehicles, the best known being White Heat ("Top of the world, Ma!" was theirs.)
    They also had extensive TV credits, such as creating a series from a few years before - The Rogues. (A bunch of others, too, but you've still got that character limit.)
    It was Goff & Roberts who were the de facto creators of the Mannix that we know and love -
    the whole human PI who ran for eight years on CBS (and would have run longer if Paramount and CBS hadn't gotten into a money grab).

    It was a few years ago that I wrote about a TV Guide profile of "The Mannix Writers", six scriptwriters whom Goff & Roberts engaged to do much of the writing for the series (circa 1970).
    The Six:
    Ed Adamson
    Cliff Gould
    John Meredyth Lucas
    Harold Medford
    Stephen Kandel
    and Chester Krumholtz (he's the one I couldn't remember last time)
    Most of these eventually left Mannix to write and produce their own shows, but many other top TV writers came in to take up the slack.
    (Check IMDb for a list of names that will boggle your mind.)

    Talking about names:
    You also left out music man Lalo Schifrin, who composed Joe Mannix's jazz waltz, and Reza Badiyi, who came up with that opening title that grabbed you back in the day.
    Themes and titles - two lost arts.

    I think I may be hitting my character limit, so I'll stand down for now.
    I might come back tomorrow with more, if you'd like ...

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    Replies
    1. As threatened:

      Mike Connors's name at birth was Krekor Ohanian Jr.; his father was an attorney in Fresno, Cal., servicing that area's large Armenian community.
      Connors's lifelong friend was Ross Bagdasarian, creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
      In an early Mannix episode, Krekor and Rostom (their given Armenian names) get to exchange a brief spate of dialog in their mother tongue.

      In one of his many interview books, Tom Weaver spoke with Mike Connors, with his long-time friend Paul Picerni (The Untouchables) in attendance.
      Quote from Picerni:
      " ... When he was doing Mannix, he would give his casting director a list of his friends like Paul Picerni, Dick Bakalyan, Tige Andrews, whoever, and he'd say 'If ever a part comes up that these guys fit, I want you to put 'em in.' As a result, every year I would do a Mannix..."

      After Mannix went off, Mike Connors decided a year or so later to try another series, playing a character with his own name, Ohanian.
      To create the format and produce the pilot, Connors engaged Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (see above).
      To write the script, he hired Cliff Gould (also see above).
      ABC took a look at the pilot, but didn't pick it up.
      Them's the breaks.
      But the story shows that Mike Connors is a stand-up guy, which is the point, isn't it?

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  4. Loved the music by Lalo and his endless collection of snazzy sport coats

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  5. They are tearing down the bridge Joe runs across in the opening credits...

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  6. I'm 23 years old and just discovered Mannix this year on late night reruns. I'm in love. As far as a detective show goes, It's pretty unrealistic, but in a good way. It's aged well because it never was about realism to begin with. It often focused on stylized violence and action scenes where our protagonist escapes danger and catches criminals all while having great detective hair and wearing fashionable sport coats. But Mannix has both the smoothness and class of James Bond and the grit and perseverance of John McClane(and he gets beat up about as much). The show looks great; california sunshine, car chases, and shadowy streets. Mannix is handsome, Peggy is beautiful, and the music is a fantastic blend of late 60's pop and jazz. It's an entertaining show that still holds a great deal of violent, stylish, charm.

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