June 1, 2022

Over the Transom: Mannix Hires a Secretary

It's time once again for another edition "Over the Transom," the occasional feature by Stephen Taylor which debuted here last month. This month, Stephen takes a look at the actress who played such a pivotal role in the success of one of my favorite detective series.

by Stephen Taylor

It was 1968, and Mannix had been renewed for a second season. But CBS was dissatisfied, and so was producer Bruce Geller. For the series to succeed, Joe Mannix would need to work on his own, and get away from the constraints of Intertect, the corporate detective agency. At Intertect, he worked on a very short leash, constantly needing to report his whereabouts, file reports and keep an expense account. This stifled what could be done with the character, and Geller, at the urging of Lucille Ball, opened the second season with Mannix setting up his own agency. Given the nature of his work, he knew he’d be in and out of the office. He needed a secretary, someone to hold down the fort and answer phone calls and do research and keep the books. The secretary would end up doing far more than that, but that’s how her duties were described to Ms. Peggy Fair when Mannix hired her as his secretary.

Peggy Fair was portrayed by Gail Fisher. Fisher was from New Jersey, and after winning multiple beauty contests began to model. She also gained some formal training as an actress working with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan. She had the chops, and she was ready to go to Hollywood. The only problem was whether she’d be able to find work. Fisher was black at a time when blacks were few and far between in television and the movies. The doors were beginning to open, but so very slowly. She arrived in Hollywood at about the same time that Nat King Cole had his groundbreaking variety show canceled by NBC due to an inability to find national sponsorship. Times were tough for black actors, but this began to come to an end in the early ’60’s when blacks actors and actresses began to land guest star spots on various television shows. The Fugitive was an early example, with Ruby Dee and James Edwards guesting in the first season in 1963. Bill Cosby became the first black actor to have a continuing role in a series with I, Spy in 1965. Both Cicely Tyson and Nichelle Nichols had regular roles in a drama, with East Side/West Side and Star Trek respectively, so Fisher was the third actress to share this distinction. In my opinion she was the first black actress to be given anything to do as a character.

As a secretary, Peggy Fair was everything a good secretary needed to be. They weren’t referred to as administrative assistants back then; they were called secretaries, and they did many things for their boss not listed in the ad posted in the newspaper. Peggy Fair was no exception. She was a single mother, a widow with a child to raise. Her late husband was an LAPD cop killed in the line of duty. (The circumstances of his death would be examined in an episode called “Medal for a Hero” in the third season). She answered the ad and was a perfect fit. She was tactful, accomplished at every sort of office work, knew how to screen visitors and do collections and so much more. The more included fixing Mannix sandwiches, coffee and the occasional meal. To run down obscure facts using someone named "Vivian" at the LAPD. To be waiting at the foot of the bed every time Mannix woke up in a hospital room. To make his bail. To place Art Malcolm on the alert. To cheerfully (most of the time) answer her telephone at 2 AM when Mannix needed some bit of information. To appeal to his sense of fair play and justice in talking him into taking some dog of a case that involves some relative/friend of hers with no money to pay, and to shame him when he wasn’t meeting her expectations. And to be a sounding board when Mannix was puzzled, and to make suggestions that often provided Mannix with some burst of insight. And to just be a secretary, and a friend and a confidant and a shoulder to cry on and a smile first thing in the morning on a rainy California Monday. And in 1968 being a secretary included making a nice ham sandwich for your boss, and having him ask you to "put a little more mustard on that, honey.."

Peggy Fair was also easy on the eyes, which led to speculation that she more than a professional relationship with Joe Mannix. No. While Mike Connors and Gail Fisher had great chemistry working together, there was never any sort of romance between the two. There couldn’t be. Peggy Fair was not going to get involved with a man who did the same sort of work as her late husband. The stress of being married to a cop wasn’t going to be any different than a relationship with a private detective. The hours, the worry, the constant terror of bad news; she’d been down that road before and wanted no part of that again, thank you very much. Mannix, for his part, played the field and enjoyed himself immensely. He never married, had no children, and was interested in neither. And a relationship would have destroyed the great chemistry these two had, one with the other. With the constant worry over his safety, the balance between the two characters would have shifted in a way that was detrimental to the series. The show would have jumped the shark years before Fonzie. And as a practical matter, the CBS Television Network just wasn’t going to allow an interracial romance. So it never happened. I think the series was better off without it. Her relationship toward Mannix was maternal mixed with friendship; he gave her someone to take care of and worry over. Mannix saw her as a friend, and would do anything to protect her and keep her from harm. In fact, he did this several times, as Peggy had a tendency to get kidnapped on a routine basis. He counted on Peggy to have his back, and she never let him down.

Several TV series back then experimented with racially charged language in their early seasons; Adam-12 and Sanford and Son come to mind immediately. It didn’t last long, and it didn’t occur at all on Mannix. Even the bad guys treated Peggy with respect, although one thug did refer to her as a “blackbird”. Mannix put the issue of racism front and center early on in an episode in the second season, “Last Rites for Miss Emma”. Peggy is attracted to a man (Robert Hooks) who tried to break up a robbery. Mannix begins to investigate, and finds the man may not be the hero he’s portrayed to be. When Mannix points this out to Peggy, she refuses to believe him and calls him a racist. Mannix had a way of grabbing people by their arm or shoulder to emphasize a point, and he grabs Peggy now and just stares at her without speaking; his look tells her that she knows better and that she better stop being foolish right away. Peggy finally breaks eye contact and, weeping, apologizes.

Peggy really shone in the fourth season episode “The World Between”. While in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound (remember, she worked for Joe Mannix) she falls in love with an African prince (Hari Rhodes), and he with her. They begin planning a future, but he learns that he’s terminally ill. He decides to return to his homeland, and trying to keep Peggy from being hurt, breaks off the romance. This episode was all about Peggy; it only took Mannix about 10 minutes to figure out who was trying to kill the Prince and to break up the conspiracy, and the rest of the episode was given over to their romance. This episode, one of the best in the series, certainly features one of the best endings; Peggy is at her desk, as chipper as always. Mannix passes by and stops. He hesitates, not really knowing what to say. He finally asks her if she’s okay; she smiles and assures him that she’ll be just fine. Satisfied, Mannix walks into his office. Peggy then turns toward the camera; her face crumples and tears begin to run down her face.

Fisher never did much after Mannix. She had some legal issues later in the ’70’s involving drugs and long-distance telephone fraud, and there were rumors of drug abuse for many years after Mannix. She didn’t participate in the crossover episode of Diagnosis: Murder in 1997, and by the time she died in 2000 she had fallen so far off the face of the earth that it took nearly three months for word of her death to leak out to the general public. TV  


  1. It was back in 2015, when you did a post about Mannix and its long-running success - and it fell to me to add a credit-where-it's-due comment abot Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, the writers/producers who'd saved the show in its second season.
    Of course, one of the major saves was the creation of Peggy Fair, and the casting therein of Gail Fisher.
    It goes a bit further than that:
    In Season 1 (the Intertect year), Joe Mannix was an insufferable smartass, at odds with everybody -the perfect jerk.
    In Season 2, Joe became an employer, forcing him to grow up - to deal with people as human beings.
    Peggy Fair was a big part of that - she dealt with Mannix as an equal, a working, knowledgeable helper (as opposed to a jokey foll, as was the usual trope of those times).
    This was an example for the audience - not only in the racial sense, but in the workplace sense; Joe and Peggy worked together, as partners and as friends, and they got the jobs done.
    This came from Goff and Roberts: the two men became writing partners nearly twenty years before they scored the Mannix gig in '68, which they kept going for seven years (and would doubtless have continued had CBS and Paramount hadn't gotten into that price war - but that's another story ...).
    Post-Mannix, Goff and Roberts kept on working together, right up to Ben Roberts's passing in 1989 - commanding respect and friendship all the way down the line.

    A couple of weeks ago, TCM ran a movie called Portrait In Black, which was the beginning of the Goff-Roberts collaboration, as a stage play in 1949.
    As it happened, the movie didn't get made until 1960 (with Lana Turner, Anthony Quinn, Sandra Dee, Richard Basehart, and John Saxon).
    By that time, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts had sufficient repute that they got to turn their stage play into a screenplay (that didn't happen often).

    I seem to have strayed from the original topic here; my point (?) would be that the writers/producers deserved at least a name-check for their contributions on Mannix, and so I brought it up.
    So There Too.

    1. With all due respect, Mike, I didn't write this piece--Stephen did. (I wish I had.) You might have known that already, but I just wanted to clear up any potential confusion with your comment about "when you did a post". I want to make sure Stephen gets all the credit.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!