The Bee originally published this story Jan. 18, 2011.
Television schedules are filled with crime dramas where the detectives are tough but sensitive. They should thank Fresno native Mike Connors for pioneering that blueprint through his 1960s TV show "Mannix."
The PBS show "Pioneers of Television" takes a look at Connors' ground-breaking work in its second season, which begins tonight. The four-part series looks at TV's most popular genre, and Connors is featured in the Feb. 1 episode on TV crime dramas.
Connors tops a list of veteran stars featured, including James Garner, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, Angie Dickinson, Bill Cosby, Robert Culp, Stefanie Powers, Martin Landau, Peter Graves, Robert Conrad, Linda Evans and Fess Parker.
Before "Mannix" launched in 1967, most detectives were by-the-book guys who never showed their emotions.
"What we decided when we were doing 'Mannix' was that the 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, and all of the things that happen to us every day and never shown, " Connors says. "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."
Connors, 85, had been a working actor for 15 years before being cast in "Mannix." By the time the show ended in 1975, it became his best-known role.
He hadn't set out to be an actor. Connors, whose real name is Krekor Ohanian, left Fresno after high school to enlist in the Air Force. After serving from 1943-46, he planned to fulfill his mother's wish to become a lawyer. Connors landed a college scholarship to play basketball at the University of California at Los Angeles. After one game, he met director William Wellman, who encouraged him to get into acting.
He made the career switch and spent 55 years working on a long list of TV shows and films. People always want to talk to him about "Mannix."
"So many people said to me over the years, 'We love the fact that you would get emotionally involved with people and even show the results of a tear or something.' And I think a lot of that took hold, " Connors says.
He came close to having a second iconic role: Perry Mason. Connors was approached to replace Raymond Burr when the "Perry Mason" star was locked in a heated contract dispute. Connors later learned it was all a ploy to get Burr to sign his new contract.
So it was the ground-breaking "Mannix" that made Connors a star. In this era of remakes and revivals, Connors is certain "Mannix" would work as well today as it did years ago.
"I think it's the thing that has made motion pictures or entertainment popular all of its life. What made the western popular. What makes the crime show popular. What makes good drama. That is the public has somebody to pull for or pull against, " Connors says.