Mike Connors, Principled Private Detective on 'Mannix,' Dies at 91

Mike Connors Photofest H 2016

As the heroic good guy on the CBS action series, he was among the highest-paid TV actors in the early 1970s. He played basketball for John Wooden at UCLA.

Mike Connors, who took a punch as well as anyone while playing the good-guy private detective on the long-running Saturday night action series Mannix for CBS, has died. He was 91.

A former basketball player for legendary coach John Wooden at UCLA, Connors died Thursday in Encino from leukemia, the actor's agent confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter

Mannix, the last series from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s famed TV company Desilu Productions to air, ran for eight seasons from September 1967 until April 1975. Created by Richard Levinson and William Link and developed by executive producer Bruce Geller (Mission: Impossible), the hit show featured an electric theme from jazz great Lalo Schifrin and starred Connors as a noble Korean War veteran.

The first season of the series had Mannix employed at Intertect, a large Los Angeles detective agency run by Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella). But he wasn't the corporate type, and starting with the second season, Mannix was on his own, working out of his home office at 17 Paseo Verde.

Mannix drove several hot automobiles during the series’ run (some souped up by George Barris), including a 1969 Dodge Dart, a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda convertible and a 1974 Dodge Challenger. He was often seen bailing out of these cars when the brakes were tampered with — that is, when he wasn’t getting beaten up or shot at by the bad guys. (By one count, Mannix was shot 17 times and knocked unconscious 55 times on the show.) His athleticism and striking dark looks were perfect for the role.

Though Mannix was criticized for being excessively violent when it aired, Connors said in a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times that the series was tame by modern-day standards.

“We did have car chases and fights,” he recalled, “but when you compare them to shows that are on now, we were very, very low-keyed.”

For all the physical abuse, the broad-shouldered Connors became one of the highest-paid stars on television, earning $40,000 an episode at the height of the show’s ratings run. (He sued CBS and Paramount in May 2011, claiming he was never paid royalties on the show and was owed millions of dollars.)

Connors received four Emmy nominations from 1970-73 and six Golden Globe noms from 1970-75 but won just once, picking up a trophy from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in 1970. The only Emmy the show ever received was given that year to Gail Fisher, who played Peggy Fair, Mannix’s prim and steady secretary (she was widow of a cop killed in the line of duty). Fisher was one of the first African-American actresses to have a regular series role on TV.

"I loved the show, I loved doing it, and it had no negatives as far as I was concerned," Connors said during a 2014 interview.

"The show itself started a whole new era of detective shows, because this wasn’t the usual cynical private eye a la Humphrey Bogart. It was more a show about an all-around normal human being. The character of Joe Mannix could be taken advantage of by a pretty face, he could shed a tear on an emotional level, he was very close to his father and his family, so he was more a normal personality with normal behavior. I think that’s a part of why the show was so successful."

Two other producers on the show, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, were veteran movie screenwriters whose work included White Heat (1949), starring James Cagney.

The Armenian-American actor also was recognizable for three other series: Tightrope (1959-60), in which he starred as an undercover agent infiltrating organized crime; Today’s FBI (1981-82), in which he played an FBI supervisor; and the syndicated series Crimes of the Century (1989), which he hosted. He played Robert Mitchum’s wartime comrade in the 1988-89 miniseries War and Remembrance.

Born Krekor Ohanian in Fresno, Calif., on Aug. 15, 1925, Connors served in the Army Air Force during World War II, then came to Westwood on a basketball scholarship. While aiming for law school, he developed a passion for acting and appeared in several plays. He was encouraged by Oscar-winning writer-director William Wellman (A Star Is Born), who spotted him while he played for the Bruins.

At one point, he was represented by future James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli.

Connors got his professional start in 1952 in an RKO release, Sudden Fear, as Touch Connors (Touch had been his nickname at UCLA). He continued in small roles for a number of years, with turns in Island in the Sky (1953), starring John Wayne, and as a herder in The Ten Commandments (1956) with Charlton Heston.

He made his TV debut in 1954 with a role on Ford Theatre and continued with numerous small roles while gaining recognition as a heavy in such Westerns as Gunsmoke, Maverick, Wagon Train and Cimarron City.

He changed his name to Mike Connors in 1958 and appeared in such movies as Live Fast, Die Young (1958) and Situation Hopeless … But Not Serious (1965), which starred Alec Guinness. He landed one of his best early movie roles in the 1966 remake of Stagecoach, playing the cardsharp.

Throughout his career, which spanned nearly 50 years, Connors made numerous guest-star appearances on such shows as The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Millionaire, The Untouchables, The Fall Guy, The Love Boat, Walker, Texas Ranger, Murder, She Wrote, Burke’s Law, The Commish, Diagnosis Murder (where he returned as Joe Mannix) and, in 2007, Two and a Half Men.

He voiced the character Chipacles in Disney’s animated series Hercules.

Other film credits included Sudden Fear (1952) opposite Joan Crawford; Too Scared to Scream (1985), which he also produced; Avalanche Express (1979); James Dean: Race With Destiny (1997), as studio head Jack Warner; and Gideon (1999).

Connors, who was married for more than 65 years to the former Mary Lou Willey, was active in charitable organizations, including Operation Missing Persons, an educational program to promote awareness of the neurological disorder dystonia. He also served as a spokesperson for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

In addition to his wife, survivors include his daughter Dana and granddaughter Cooper.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.