Fresno native Mike Connors, who played one of the coolest TV detectives to ever grace the small screen with his role of Joe Mannix on the CBS drama “Mannix,” has died. He passed away Thursday from complications of leukemia that had been diagnosed a week earlier.
Connors was 91.
The last time I talked to Connors, whose real name was Krekor Ohanian, was in 2011 when he was being featured in an episode of “Pioneers of Television” for PBS. He’s best known for “Mannix” (1967-75), but Connors had a long acting career dating back to a role in “Sudden Fear” in 1952 where he was credited as Touch Connors.
Other performance on his résumé include “Maverick,” “Wagon Train,” “Tightrope,” “Today’s F.B.I.,” “Love Boat” and “War and Remembrance.” His last credited work was a 2007 episode of “Two and a Half Men.”
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Connors also narrated the documentary “William Saroyan: The Man, The Writer.” A silver anniversary screening of the documentary will be held at 2 p.m. March 5 at Fresno’s First Armenian Presbyterian Church, 430 S. First St.
He was proud of his credits and of when he got to start his career.
“We were all very lucky. We started at a time where we had the opportunity over the years, both in motion pictures and television, to work with some of those big stars, who I call real stars – the Cary Grants, Joan Crawfords, and the Stanwycks, and the Gables,” Connors said during an interview for the PBS program. “That, to me, is what stood out in my life is those times. That I worked with those real stars, their attitude, the way they carried themselves, the way they did things.
“It was really a lesson that I feel sorry for the young people today that never had that chance to see what it’s really like and how you should be, because a lot of the young people don’t really appreciate where they’ve been and where they’ve come.”
It was a career Connors embraced but he had never planned on being actor. He left Fresno after high school to enlist in the Army Air Corps, serving from 1943-46. His intention was to fulfill his mother’s wish to become a lawyer.
After landing a college scholarship to play basketball at the University of California at Los Angeles, Connors met director William Wellman, who encouraged him to get into acting.
His sports background was a help because when he was starring in “Mannix,” the actors didn’t often turn over the work to a stunt person.
“In those days, we did all the action live. You drove the cars. You did the fights. You fell off of buildings. Today it’s all done in front of a blue screen. When I look back on it, I remember I was tired, and we invented a lot of things,” Connors said.
The action work he did was so good, Connors got typecast. But, he described himself as a frustrated song-and-dance man who wanted to be on a TV comedy. The closest he was able to get was appearing on variety shows with Dean Martin, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra.
There’s good reason he got stuck being cast in dramas: “Mannix” was a groundbreaking series.
“I don’t want to sound egotistical or anything, but what we decided when we were doing ‘Mannix’ was that that character was going to be more like the average human being. That he could cry. He could get emotional. A pretty girl could take advantage of him and make a sucker out of him,” Connors said. “What we set out to do was to get rid of just that hard one-way private eye that was cynical, tough, threw away those great lines that everybody wished they could say, and make him a more realistic person and make the show as real as possible without going overboard.
“I think that caught on.”
It was Connors who made that plan work so well.