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Mike Connors, photographed at his Encino, CA home,

After a 40-Year Nap, 'Mannix' Blazes Back

Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) fought and traded shots with bad guys time after time in eight years on CBS -- but he never gave in.

By Neely Tucker Washington Post Staff Writer Tuesday, June 3, 2008; Page C01

"M-A-N-N-I-X!" On DVD! Yes, TV fans, it's true. It's time for Barracuda convertibles, babes in short skirts, pistol-whipping bad guys, Cali landscapes and irresponsible gunfire in public places. Yes, "Mannix," that beloved private-eye show of yesteryear, finally wanders in from the 405 freeway to your local DVD purveyor today with the official, complete, six-disc, 24-episode first season. That would be a valentine from 1967, when actor Mike "Touch" Connors began an eight-year run on CBS, often in the Top 10, as the private eye with a sardonic smile and an open collar.

The official tab will run you $54.99.

"I just got the thing in, and I'm going to sit down and watch some of it this weekend," Connors told us in a phone interview last week. "I haven't seen the pilot episode since it aired 40 years ago."

Connors was talking from his home in Encino. He's 82 and retired. He and Joseph Campanella, who played his boss the first year of the show when they worked for a company called Intertect, both look great on the commentaries that are part of the extras. Connors sounds just like he did back in the day, too. The episodes look beautiful -- blue skies, brown eyes, Connors's close shave.

We truly regret to remind viewers that Gail Fisher, who played Mannix's secretary and made history as one of the first black actresses to star in a network television series, was not a character on the first year. That's right: No Peggy. No flashing smile, no bedroom voice. (Not that we had a crush on her or anything.)

But the rest of it, the nutshell of the entire eight years, is right here. Here's the rundown on the pilot episode, "The Name Is Mannix":

He gets in a fight in the first 10 minutes. He runs. Fight, fight. He takes off his tie. He runs. Car chase. Femme fatale (blond, leggy, slightly hysterical). He turns her down: "No, baby." He runs. Guys get shot, often by Mannix. A helicopter blows up. Mannix solves mystery. Credits roll, over that great Lalo Schifrin score.

You want television when men were men? On the pilot alone, Connors broke his wrist and dislocated his shoulder, doing his own stunts. Did he cry about it? Heck, no! He recruited his visiting son to stay over a night "so he could hold up my arm so that I could shave the next morning." They filmed the rest and drove home. It was Christmas Eve.

We wrote last year in this space that Mannix was the best television show, like, ever. We opined that it was a prosecutable offense that it was not officially on DVD. We reported that for years, two Web sites and thousands of devoted fans had petitioned CBS to release the show on DVD, all to no avail.

And, now, finally, Mannix joins the ranks of "Kojak," "Columbo," "Mission:Impossible," "Hawaii Five-O." Time capsules from the late 1960s and 1970s, when crime dramas on television did not aspire to be realistic and men drank and smoked and punched people and had no families and drove fast cars and life was generally great.

Ken Ross, executive vice president and general manager of CBS Home Entertainment, writes us in an e-mail that the company "always" planned on releasing the disc. This was news to Connors, who couldn't get his calls returned for years when he would try to ask when the show might resurface.

"We think the fans will find the wait was worthwhile once they experience how great the episodes look and sound on DVD and watch the special features," Ross writes.

We agree. But before you take our recommendation, we should note that not everyone shares this enthusiasm. We invited two Younger, Know-Nothing Colleagues who think "Homicide" is ancient television to watch a few minutes of "Mannix."

Partial transcript:

YKNC 1: "This is awful." Pause. "I mean, like, really bad."

YKNC 2: "Does anything happen on this show?"

YKNC 1: "This may be the most boring thing I've ever seen."

YKNC 2: "My life is almost over. What's on YouTube?"

Alas. We return to watch Season 1, and pine for the return of Peggy in Season 2.

***

More than three decades after the show died, there are at least two Web sites devoted to it and more than 1,100 people have voted for it to be brought back on TVShowsOnDVD.com. It was popular on TV Land in reruns in the late 1990s but never translated to DVD.

" We've called, we've had hundreds of people petition, I just don't know why Paramountl Viacom won't release it," says Pat Talley, a university librarian in Tennessee who runs a Web site (17paseoverde. tripod. com) and is a charter member of the Barracudas, the unofficial fan club of the show. (It's named for the Plymouth that Mannix drove.) "We've really pursued this thing, and we just cannot get an answer. We made tapes of the show during its TV Land run and given them to Mr. Connors. It's all he has of the show, either."

Montreal's Helene Gagne, an assistant manager at a pharmacy, has collected more than 100 scripts from the show, many of them originals. She tracks down locations used on the show via the Internet, then leads fellow fans on a "Mannix" tour of Los Angeles every year or so. She once met Connors in a restaurant there, and now they exchange Christmas cards.

"Every year we say, 'This'll be the year,' because Paramount keeps putting out old shows, but they just won't put out ' Mannix,'" she says. "I just want to see the eighth season [ never shown in reruns] before I die."

Meanwhile, the rest of the gang has been pretty much rescued from oblivion by DVD, that pre" Hill Street Blues" generation of stand- alone cops and anti-hero private dicks who bend the law to save the day: "Kojak," "Columbo," "Banacek," "Baretta," "Police Woman," " Starsky and Hutch," " Mission:Impossible," "Hawaii Five- 0," "The Rockford Files," "lronside," "The Streets of San Francisco" and, coming this Christmas, "The Mod Squad." (Peggy Lipton, we love vou!) Even - and this is hard to believe - the sixth season of "Magnum, P. I." was rolled out on DVD earlier this month for Memorial Day, because Magnum had been, in the story line, a Vietnam vet.

But no "Mannix." Who had been in Korea. It is to weep. DVD releases of old television shows have become something of a national pop culture library, and why something as cool as" Mannix" remains MIA is a minor mystery perhaps only the detective at 17 Paseo Verde himself could solve.

The people at Viacom, part of the corporate structure that oversees the rights to the show, politely referred us to a spokeswoman for their partners at Paramount, who very politely did not retum our repeated caUs for two weeks. Spokeswoman Brenda Ciccone tinally offered in an e-mail that CBS, yet another branch of the shop, has the rights, and it might issue the show next year. We called CBS and got no retum calls. We went back to Ciccone, asking who decided what shows get picked and how. She replied via e-mail that it was "honestly all very complicated."

Consumer demand just isn't enough! "Legal rights, music clearances, availability of supplemental material and access to talent for new interviews or commentaries" also goin the consideration. ( Um, we kind of knew that anyway, but tha1's their story and they're sticking to it.)

"That's pretty much what l've heard from them for years," laughs Connors.

This is a shame, because Mannix was great, just great - one of the last unapologetically masculine and completely unrealistic American icons, at least in the myths we tell ourselves on television. Cops and detectives got cute or complicated later on, and there really hasn't been much on television like it since. It debuted at a turbulent time in American culture, 1967, and Joe Mannix was pretty much a modemized Lone Ranger - no wife, no kids, no pets, no political views, no close friends. He was hip enough to listen to jazz and to mock himself as "a hard- boiled detective in the classical tradition," but traditional enough to wear a coat and tie and to have good manners.

And there was Gail Fisher as Peggy Fair, the husky voiced secretary! She even shared top billing, the only actor other than Connors named in the opening credits. Her primary job description seemed to be getting kidnapped.

For the era, when television was the Great White Way, a black actress in a major role was extraordinary.

" Peggy was like the bright girl from church who got that good job," remembers Clarence Page, Connors shared top billing with Gail Fisher as Mannix's husky-voiced secretary, Peggy. The show hinted at a romantic connection between the characters, but ultimately didn't cross the barriers against interracial relationships that dominated the era. the Chicago Tribune's Washington columnist, who watched her as a love- struck teen, then wrote a farewell column to Fisher when she died years later. "You know, she was that girl who was the first to get hired in a white guy's office, and if she didn't do well, nobody else was going to get hired, either. She was representing."

Fisher gained screen time, and the show even skirted with - gasp! - an interracial romance.

See - this also tended to happen a lot - Mannix gets shot, right? And loses his sight because the bullet creases his left temple and, while not doing much physical damage, still shows him death! Heavy, baby!

"You live a dangerous and complex life," the optometrist tells him, in dialogue typical of the day. "You risk it constantly in your profession. To you, that's just an occupational hazard. But you're also a man, and a mortal. ... ln that split second, you felt death. Your eyes saw it, couldn't stand it, and they closed."

Mannix comes home from this diagnosis, blind, under serious medication, and what does he do?

He gets a drink, that's what! Like a MAN!

And right there with him is Peggy, in an orange miniskirt, an open blouse and hip little vest. She takes him for a walk on the beach, arm in arm.

He learns Braille and shows her his progress by spelling out" Hi Peggy" with his fingers.

She smiles and says, eyes f1ashing, in that bedroom voice, "Hi, Joe."

He regains his sight - when he shoots the bad guy. (Mannix was 50 bad he could shoot people when he was blind.) Peggy rushes in, they embrace, and . . . and that was it. Kind of a downer. It was the early , 70s. You could only go so far.

What happens to lost TV show legends? What happens to ghosts of pop culture?

Connors went on to work steadily in dozens of television roles, invested wisely and retired comfortably in Encino with his wife of more than half a century, Mary Lou Willey. He's 82 and has dinner with Robert Wagner a lot.

Robert Reed, often appearing as Mannix's source at LAPD, went on to camp television history as America's Dad, Mike Brady, in " The Brady Bunch." He died from complications of AIDS in 1992.

Legendary composer Lalo Schifrin said in a telephone interview last week that the elegant music he composed for the show, a unique jazz waltz, is second only to his " Mission: Impossible" theme in popularity. People ask for il ail the time, he says. Gail Fisher largely vanished. Shortly after the series ended, she was arrested for drugs. She got divorced. Work dried up.It took four years before she worked again - and that was a guest appearance on one episode of the ultra- cheesy " Fantasy Island," according to her bio on the Internet Movie Database. Another four years and another guest cameo on "Knight Rider."

She did a god- awful independent film called " Mankillers" and a bit role in the 1990 TV movie" Donor." She was 54 years old. She developed diabetes and emphysema and, according to IMDB, never worked again.

ln 2000, the National Enquirer asked Connors if he'd go with a reporter to deliver flowers and cards from well- wishing readers. He said sure.

"It was really sad," he says. " I hadn't seen her in years. She was in a nursing home over on Olympie Boulevard. She was using a wheelchair." She died in December. She had fallen into such obscurity that, other than the Enquirer, no other media outlet reported her death for another month - not even her hometown paper back in New Jersey, not even "Jet," the magazine focused on black America.

Her ashes were scattered in the Pacific, the same ocean by which she once walked arm in arm on the beach with handsome Mike Connors, and the sunlight had played upon her face and her smile and her future had looked so bright.

Los Angeles is a land of lies. The only way to see one of television's great detectives now is on tapes somebody made during its run on TV Land. They are dubs and the quality is lousy, but you get the snazzy opening theme in that three quarter waltz, the right hand of the pianist carrying the theme. Trapped in time, Mannix goes sprinting across a suspension bridge in Long Beach, tie flapping over his shoulder. His name spells out in rectangular boxes on the screen, M- A- N- N- 1-X, over shots of him jumping out of a car, swimming, driving a race car or swirling a blonde around in the sunlight, her skirt twisting above her hips. Days were tough there al 17 Paseo Verde, what with gunfire, exploding cars and hit men trying to cancel your oxygen supply.

But it also had Peggy's smile, the convertible out front, the .38 in the top right-hand desk drawer, the promise of a date for dinner. A man could take it in, tie loosened, Scotch in the crystal decanter, smokes in the soft pack.

The rest of the 20th century hadn't happened yet.

It was a good life.