Only a little more than halfway over, 2017 has been a terrible year for vintage TV lovers, with stars Roger Moore, Mary Tyler Moore, Roger Smith, Adam West, Martin Landau, and Don Rickles passing away, as well as a particular boyhood favorite of mine, Mike “Touch” Connors.
By Paul Mavis
Thankfully, a boxed series set of Connor’s iconic Mannix series finally came out in May—a moment for orgiastic celebration, I demurely contend—which proved to be a nice bit of timing as an unintended tribute to the recently passed star. Sooooo…when a former “colleague” of mine, listlessly hunting and pecking away at his fast-fading “DVD Squawk” review site, blew off this complete series release with nothing more than a skimpy nine paragraph review that referenced exactly three episodes (out of eight seasons worth of material), I wasn’t exactly surprised (it’s been going on for years). However, when he off-handedly libeled one of TV’s greatest detective series with a feeble, “[Mannix is] only slightly above average. It’s entertaining but routine,” well…we’re not going to let that stand, are we, kids? We’re not going to let that be the final dismissive word on Joe Mannix! No, sir—not from someone who uses a Roman numeral in their name! Let us go back, back, through the shifting sands of time, and arbitrarily drop in on, say…Mannix’s third season. How ‘bout that? Back…back…back….
The Apocalypse. Summer, 1975. Unbeknownst to a young boy, a smiling, open-faced, tousle-haired lad full of life and hopes and dreams of the future—not to mention a closet full of loudly-checked, synthetic-fibered sport jackets—Mannix is…canceled. Autumn draws near, summer dies, and with happy days of play and school and laughter comes the end of summer repeats and the beginning of the new television season. The boy, the blissfully unaware, TV-adoring boy, anxiously turns on the channel at the appointed time, but some…some thing named Kate McShane appears (Oh! a curse on you, Kate McShane! A curse on you for what you have done to this child, Devil’s spawn!).
The boy retreats into a near-catatonic world of hopeless yearnings and bitter phantasms. No more Dacron® polyester sports coats. No more car phones. No more weekend fishing trips to desert mountain towns with deadly secrets. No more bullet wounds to the arm that heal by the following week. And no more beautiful women who flit in and out of the private detective’s life without once calling their girlfriends to tell them what a bastard that Joe Mannix was for loving and leaving them, because no woman is going to love him, to care about him, like they can…as they then embark on a series of cheap, ultimately sad affairs with an assortment of good-looking losers with major commitment issues who further lower the women’s self-esteem, hence all the shopping and ice-cream eating.
The earth shuddered, and slipped into darkness.
I can’t hide anything from you, can I, dear reader? We all know who that little boy really was, don’t we? The lonely suburban boy who was obsessed with TV, but who found in Joe Mannix a powerful, near-perfect fantasy projection of “maleness”? The forsaken lad who was given, along with his two-fisted fictional hero, the still-viable, quasi-religious, TV-sanctioned joys of red-blooded American consumerism and the fabled SoCal “good life,” the potent combination of which lifted the boy out of his chilly Midwestern environs and gave him nothing as prosaic as an “educational message” or a “moral,” but rather…dreams? Dreams of power, dreams of action, dreams of romance, dreams of high-priced casual clothing? No? Still haven’t guessed who he was?
Then I’ll confess to you: that little boy was…Greg Thompson down at the end of my street. A total head-case. On a lighter note, Paramount has released Mannix: The Complete Series, a 48-disc, 194-episode slimline DVD collection of the long-running (1967-1975) detective series. A particular favorite of mine during the days when a bit of Reynolds Wrap® on your b&w’s aerial jacked up Joe’s checkered sports jacket moire to seizure levels, Mannix is the kind of polished, assured “Big 3” network product that now looks like it came from the moon in comparison with the jittery, angst-ridden, unpleasant offerings showing up on TV today. Good location work (and great Desilu backlot shoots, as well), pretty girls, tons of action, “Touch” Connors in all his hairy Armenian glory, and some deft, well-written mysteries add up to one of the best TV detective series in the genre.
For the uninitiated in the world of Joe Mannix, West Los Angeles private investigator, a brief run-down of Mannix‘s set-up this third season is in order. Having dumped the chilly confines of the MCA-like Intertect Agency two years before for his own home base of operations, private detective Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) pads down the stairs from his second floor apartment at 17 Paseo Verde, and accepts the always-waiting first cup of coffee from his pretty secretary, appropriately monikered, Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher). “Regular Joe” Mannix, operating with that easy air of man who may have received one too many cracks to the skull, slips on his regulation sports coat or windbreaker, and calmly awaits his first beating of the day. In between assorted batteries on his person, Joe finds time to entertain clients in his Spanish-themed office, track down suspects in his sleek hunter green 1969 Dodge Dart GTS 340 convertible, complete with handy telephone (not a CB, but a real phone, complete with a clunky handle receiver: telephone number KG6-21-14), make time with any number of gorgeous women, and either beat or get beaten by apparently every known felon in the greater Los Angeles county area. Mannix always solves the case, and fees are only seldom paid. Oh, and if you need to contact Mannix and he’s not in his office, and his car phone isn’t answering…try Los Angeles County Hospital.
A series I never missed as a kid, Mannix plays differently for me today, obviously, than it did as a boy totally immersed in 70s network television. Back during its original run, Mannix was considered top-flight entertainment, highly rated in its time slot (eventually hitting its peak—the 7th most watched show in America during its fifth season, before a disastrous schedule change killed its ratings), and as comfortable a television series—in the best sense of that word—as an old shoe. By this third season, Mannix had its formula down pat, with involving mysteries bolstering its mixture of big-screen polish and trendy late 60s, early 70s television violence—along with an extremely likeable cast—that characterized so many network offerings at that time.
Watching Mannix today, as well as other vintage shows from that era, it comes back to me just how enjoyable and well-crafted these network entertainments were from over three decades ago. We viewers took shows like Mannix for granted; the dial was filled with comparably fine examples in all the genres, with detective/police outings especially well-represented back in the late 60s and early 70s. Excellent entries like Hawaii Five-O, Cannon, Barnaby Jones, The F.B.I., Ironside, Adam-12, Dragnet, Kojak, and The Streets of San Francisco gave us more than enough action and suspense if we happened to miss an episode of Joe Mannix getting pummeled on any particular week. When I watch a series from my childhood like Mannix, the tone of the scripting, directing, editing and performances peculiar to that time period immediately comes back to me, and the single best word I can summon up to describe that particular time in network television production is “assured.” There’s a professional gloss to Mannix that’s not at all unlike the feature films that were playing in movie houses at that time.
There’s a professional, driving dynamic to Mannix’s rhythm that only comes from the old “studio system,” not the one that had largely died off in the motion picture business by this point, but the one which was still alive and well at the three TV networks. Writers that had long-standing relationships with certain networks worked with directors who honed their skills on countless episodes of serial TV, while studios like Desilu provided top-notch technical talent from movie and TV veterans with decades of experience. Throw into that mix a talented, likeable performer like Mike Connors, who had worked the hard way up from cheap “B” exploitation fare (Swamp Women) to his own network series, Tightrope, as well as more polished, expensive feature films like Harlow and Where Love Has Gone, and you have the ingredients for a finely-meshed “product”—not used pejoratively—that rarely if ever misfires.
That assured “big-screen” feel of Mannix is perfectly distilled down in its iconic main credit sequence. Once the “teaser” element of the plot opens up the episode (playing very much in a Bondian manner of hooking the audience right from the start), the optically printed multiple frames checker-boarded onto the screen gives Mannix both a feature film feel (it was an expensive technique that suggested the various actions depicted were too large to be encompassed singularly on the then-small TV screens), as well as an almost comic book context (the black bordered-frames with Mannix engaged in various activities, look like a comic come to life). That cinematic technique at once embodies and “becomes” the content. Mannix‘s activities are larger-than-life and outsized for the TV screen, and the essence of those scenes depicted in comic book-styled graphics are violent, sexual fantasies long-associated with the fictional private detective genre.
In this opening, the viewer is treated to all the glamorous, dangerous, romanticized activities a fictional TV private eye might engage in: he drives a Jeep over rough terrain; he rides along a dangerously narrow conveyor belt, gun drawn; he runs along in a field, either chasing someone…or being chased; he spins a pretty girl off in slow motion; he eats (alone) a sandwich, shaves, and later burns a piece of toast (homey touches meant to convey Mannix’s “regular Joe” status and endear him to the female viewers); he dodges a homicidal helicopter; he drives a Formula One racer; he’s swimming for his life; he’s drawing down and firing on a would-be assassin; he stands ready for his next judo assault. In a moment of beautifully fractured and self-reflexive irony, Mannix himself, only his eyes framed tightly in one of the boxes, watches a similar race car plunge off a cliff to a fiery end (is Mannix watching his own wreck, we might think at first?), as he then smacks a hood right in the kisser from three different angles, before he smacks a beautiful dame right on the lips as the camera dollies in over his shoulder, in the best Hollywood glamour style. All of this is in the opening title sequence, alternately jacked up with the sudden, blaring horns of composer Lalo Schifrin’s theme that promises unequaled excitement, or mellowed with Schifrin’s waltz-time piano bridge that offers a sophisticated contrast to the violent goings-on. How can anyone watch that opening title sequence, and not “get” Mannix in a heartbeat?
Certainly Mannix‘s reputation as an excessively violent actioner has suffered somewhat when compared with shows on television today, but its seemingly unending series of beatings, shootings, stabbings and high falls only amplifies and reinforces that fantasy element of the series that proved so popular, then and now. No licensed P.I. could ever get away with Mannix’s countless fistfights and shootings without his license being pulled (he kills at least three people this third season), or at the very least grand jury inquiries or even a crummy newspaper story now and then (we never see a reporter showing up and grilling Mannix over the latest act of mayhem he participated in).
An even more basic reality that is utterly ignored in Mannix: no human being could ever survive the torturous assaults on their bodies that Mannix apparently endures on a daily basis. During this third season, Mannix, in addition to the beatings he delivers (his hands would look like two giant hams), is subjected to several bullet wounds (both arms, with subsequent cool one-armed fighting on his part, and a grazing to the head causing blindness, the second most popular TV malady right after temporary amnesia), as well as broken ribs, a neck brace when he falls through a second-story porch, and numerous other assaults that lead to, among other end results, him getting thrown down an empty elevator shaft and into a dumpster. My personal favorite is an attack by a rottweiler—thank god Mannix is wearing one of his industrial-strength polyester sports coats which he wraps around his arm for protection (in the very next scene, he puts the coat back on…not even a snag! Thank you, Dupont!). Some of this can come over humorously since the conventions of the early 70s police/detective TV shows have been parody fodder for decades. However, Mannix plays all of this straight, and to its credit, it only seems outlandish when episode after episode in a row is watched, where the pattern of excess becomes more noticeable.
Further adding to the fantasy element of Mannix is, well…everything. Mannix is more than comfortable in announcing its obvious intentions in this third season. In the excellent A Question of Midnight, Mannix tells a sultry, surprisingly bitchy—and all the more hot for that change of demeanor—Lee Meriwether, “It seems a lot of people have a lot of things to hide around here. Now that makes for a good mystery. That’s how I make my living: finding out things.” You can’t get much more up front than that, and most Mannix episodes boil down to that simple paradigm: Mannix sticks his nose in where it’s not wanted, and gets beaten up for his troubles, before he eventually puts the pieces together of the surprisingly dense puzzle…while getting in his own licks before the fade-out.
Joe Mannix as a real character, though, is elusive—and probably designed as so. If I want to create a veritable commercial promoting the idealized “regular Joe” American male-as-action-hero/lover,” I’m not going to promote his politics (you’ll lose half the audience), or show too much of his self-doubt, or angst, or other personal foibles for fear of grounding the fantasy. We never get to “know” Joe Mannix on a truly deep level (we never even see his upstairs bedroom, or much else of his apartment—only his office downstairs). We’re given some cursory background, such as conflict with his father over leaving the family vineyards for the exciting streets of L.A. (Return to Summer Grove), and quite a few clients come to Joe already knowing him in some other context (the military, hometown, other cases, other detectives). But “Joe Mannix” as a three-dimensional person? Not so much.
So if we don’t have a fully developed character, the outward (and outsized) trappings of a fictionalized, romanticized TV detective are emphasized, totally in keeping with a fantasy figure. Joe has married his home and office life into one functional, attractive package at 17 Paseo Verde, with a beautiful, eternally devoted secretary who goes above and beyond the call of duty on a regular basis for her boss. Joe has his sharp, sleek convertible any single man (or particularly married man) would love having—especially with a car phone included. He’s sartorially resplendent, with a never twice-worn array of Botany 500® casual wear that screamed “stylishly comfortable” (my favorite? The brown suede windbreaker with the black turtleneck and the loafers), heavy, wrap-around Ray-Bans®, and that unruly wool of jet-black Armenian hair, perfectly styled (not too dry, not too wet—has to be in the Top Ten TV heads of hair). No wonder that practically every woman Mannix meets takes one look at this walking advertisement for early 1970s testosterone and gets the heebie jeebies.
Again, though, “fantasy” isn’t used as a negative here. Who cares if Mannix is “realistic” or not—whatever that means, anyway? Mannix‘s job is to entertain, and to provide a surrogate for our own feverish little dreams of power—personal, professional, and sexual—while we ponder a nice little mystery in the bargain. And Mannix does this expertly. The characters in a typical Mannix episode are one step up from “stock” (with terrific supporting actors usually elevating those characterizations higher), while the exposition-heavy plots overwhelm the viewer with detail to delightfully confuse them in the best noir fashion. Sometimes the action predominates (The Sound of Darkness, which references Wait Until Dark nicely); sometimes it’s the characters (The Playground features Robert Conrad doing what he does best: playing an obnoxious ass); and sometimes the mystery prevails (the terrific Murder Revisited is very much in the Columbo mold). Direction is often top-notch, as well. Sutton Roley, a veteran of numerous TV episodes and movies, comes up with a truly intriguing method of using extreme close-ups as uncut bridges to flashbacks in A Question of Midnight, a device I found noteworthy (did they use flying sets to accomplish this?), while most other Mannix directors keep the pace solid and driving along (I also noticed quite a bit of hand-held camerawork, which was creeping into staid, formalized TV shooting just at that time).
Of course, none of this would matter if Mike Connors wasn’t so…Mannix-y. It’s a cliché about successful television, but the “likeability” factor is still a key ingredient to a winning series’ formula, and certainly Connors fits the bill here. It’s always dangerous to assume any similarities in personality between actors and the characters they play, but you just get that feeling that maybe Connors is as laid-back and “regular” as Joe Mannix. There’s an inherent decency to the Mannix character—he never turns down a first kiss from some urgent woman, but he’s just as likely to stop it right there—that’s quite appealing inbetween the inhuman bashings he gives and gets. Without Connors’ decent guy/tough guy balancing act, it could be easy to chalk Joe Mannix up as some kind of sado-masochist who doesn’t exactly mind the appeal of a well-applied leather sap to the noggin. It may not have been an especially challenging role for the actor to play over and over again for eight seasons, but Connors seems game throughout: a handsome, well-dressed, well-appointed, charming, down-to-earth guy who’s equally tough and romantic. In other words…the perfect fantasy figure for both men and women.
Here are the 25 episodes of Mannix’s third season:
Eagles Sometimes Can’t Fly (9/27/69)
Mannix tries to help two of Peggy’s friends who are wanted by the police. They were at a liquor store holdup gone awry that left two people dead.
Color Her Missing (10/4/69)
After his colleague is thrown off a balcony, Mannix agrees to help the suspect—a disreputable lawyer whose only alibi is a mysterious girl who disappeared.
Return to Summer Grove (10/11/69)
Joe travels to his hometown, where he hopes to clear the name of a murder suspect confined to an iron lung. Later, he tries to reunite with his estranged father.
The Playground (10/18/69)
Someone’s trying to kill one of Hollywood’s biggest action stars, who claims to have no fear. Now it’s Mannix’s job to protect him and find the culprit.
A Question of Midnight (10/25/69)
Mannix works hard to clear the name of a former doctor, who lost his hospital job when a high-profile patient died on the operating table.
A Penny for the Peepshow (11/1/69)
Three escaped convicts storm into his office and hold Mannix, Peggy, and a client hostage. So Mannix tempts them with the possibility of a $300,000 payoff.
A Sleep in the The Deep (11/8/69)
A murder at the marina allows Mannix the opportunity to spend time on luxurious yachts—and in the company of gorgeous women—as he searches for a killer.
Memory: Zero (11/22/69)
Mannix protects a beautiful secretary whose life is in danger. Meanwhile, he is also hired by a shady real estate developer who is being blackmailed.
The Nowhere Victim (11/29/69)
Immediately after a hit-and-run accident, the victim disappears. So Mannix poses as the driver, but then lands in the middle of a mob war.
The Sound of Darkness (12/6/69)
After he is temporarily blinded by a hit man’s bullet, Mannix enlists the aid of an ex-Marine, who teaches Joe how to survive the next attempt on his life.
Who Killed Me? (12/13/69)
A rich man’s plane goes down and everyone assumes that he is dead. But then he shows up on Mannix’s doorstep, wondering who could have set him up.
Missing: Sun and Sky (12/20/69)
Although their transport plane landed safely, an entire crew was drugged and unconscious. The missing cargo? A million-dollar racehorse.
Tooth of the Serpent (12/27/69)
The son of a tough cop appears to be mixed up in a string of warehouse robberies. So his concerned mother hires Mannix to save him before it’s too late.
Medal for a Hero (1/3/70)
When the police bust a warehouse, stolen furs and jewels are recovered. But so is a list of cops who were on the take—including Peggy’s late husband!
Walk With a Dead Man (1/10/70)
Mannix meets a new client on a bus, a businessman being blackmailed. But when Joe kills the blackmailer in self-defense, his client acts like they never met.
A Chance At the Roses (1/17/70)
Mannix reluctantly takes an open-and-shut case where a young addict apparently robbed a pharmacy. But then Joe discovers that there was a mob connection.
Blind Mirror (1/24/70)
A murder attempt on the beach is recalled in flashback by the parties involved, and Mannix is not sure who to believe—the victim, the accused, or the witness.
Harlequin’s Gold (1/31/70)
Mannix goes undercover on the waterfront in order to locate the heir to a fortune. Later, Joe learns that the sailor may have been witness to a mass murder at sea.
Who is Sylvia? (2/7/70)
When Joe attends a party thrown by a Korean war buddy, he doesn’t realize he’s really there on behalf of his friend’s wife—since someone’s trying to kill her.
Only One Death To a Customer (2/14/70)
Even with three attempts on his life, Mannix still can’t figure out who would want him dead. But he thinks it may be tied to a late convict’s stolen fortune.
Fly, Little One (2/21/70)
A little girl lives in a fantasy world and thinks pirates have stolen a treasure. But Mannix thinks she may have overheard a real crime being planned.
The Search For Darrell Andrews (2/28/70)
After his detective friends is killed, Joe finds a roll of film incriminating the mastermind of a bank robbery. But then Peggy and her Toby are kidnaped.
Murder Revisited (3/7/70)
A bombastic talk show host hears gunshots while on the air. Now a man is dead, a woman is arrested, and her twin hires Mannix to clear her sister’s name.
War of Nerves (3/14/70)
What starts out as a missing persons case turns into a potential disaster. A group of men have hijacked a canister of nerve gas and kidnapped the only witness.
Once Upon a Saturday (3/21/70)
Mannix is in for quite a ride when he attempts to help an old friend, a female carnival owner. Just before her grand opening, someone tried to kill her.
Essential viewing. I know there have been other, more recent detective and police shows that purportedly reek of searing honesty and uncomfortable, complex drama…but do those detectives have hair like that? No way, buddy boy. Mannix’s third season is comfortably in the groove of providing smart little mysteries within a structure of outsized, big-screen action, with regular guy Mike Connors grinning his way through what has to be the biggest HMO bill in television history. Mannix is a winner—all the way down the line.