Mike Connors, who starred as a brawling L.A. private eye on the long-running CBS crime drama Mannix, died today of leukemia at a hospital in Tarzana, CA. He was 91. Connors had been diagnosed only a week ago with the disease. He died surrounded by the love of family, including his wife Mary Lou of 68 years whom he met while they were students at UCLA.
“He was a wonderful father, a wonderful husband, a wonderful father-in-law and a wonderful friend,” his son-in-law Mike Condon said. “He was always there for anyone in need.” Condon is married to Connors’ daughter Dana and is the stepdad to the Connors’ only grandchild, Cooper Wills.
Connors already was a veteran of film and TV shows when he landed the role of Joe Mannix in 1967. The series would air an impressive 194 episodes over eight seasons despite bouncing around the network’s schedule nearly every year. Mannix was a slow-building series, not making the primetime Top 25 until the 1970-71 season, then topping out at No. 7 overall the following year.
The show underwent a format change after its Desilu-produced first season, which had seen Korean War vet Mannix working for Intertect, a company that specialized in the use of computers and other then-high-tech gadgets. But he went solo for Season 2. Just about every episode featured a serious brawl, and you can guess who came out on top — though Mannix was famous for taking plenty of punishment. Joseph Campanella co-starred on Season 1 and was replaced by Gail Fisher for the remainder of the series. The show famously began with a split-screen opening credits set to music composed by Lalo Schifrin.
A native of Fresno, CA, Connors got his start with small roles in early-1950s films, billed as Touch Conners in such pics as Sudden Fear and Sky Commando. But the end of that decade, he began to focus on the growing TV medium, landing guest roles on such popular series as Have Gun — Will Travel, Maverick and Wagon Train. He landed his first series-lead role in 1959 on Tightrope, playing a man who infiltrated organized crime in the CBS police drama that lasted just one season.
Connors continued to appear in films and guest on TV series through the 1960s, starring such big-screen fare as Situation Hopeless … But Not Serious with Alec Guinness (1965) and Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die (1966) and co-starring with Ann-Margret, Red Buttons and Bing Crosby in the 1966 Western Stagecoach. He had roles in such hit shows as The Untouchables, Perry Mason and The Red Skelton Hour before landing his signature gig.
After Mannix ended in 1975, Connors appeared in a number of telefilms before getting his third shot at starring in a TV series. He played 20-year bureau veteran Ben Slater in Today’s F.B.I., ABC’s update of the hit 1960s series. The show lasted one season in 1981-82.
Connors continued to find acting work through the ’80s and ’90s, landing roles in the 1988 miniseries War and Remembrance along with guesting on The Love Boat, The Commish, Murder, She Wrote, Diagnosis Murder and Walker: Texas Ranger. He also voiced a character in 10 episodes of the late-’90s toon series Hercules.
He reprised the Joe Mannix role for a 2003 Hollywood farce Nobody Knows Anything, and his final screen credit was a 2007 episode of Two and a Half Men.
Connors is survived by his wife Mary Lou, his daughter Dana, his son-in-law Mike Condon and his grandaughter Cooper Wills. He was preceded in death by his son Gunner, who passed away nine years ago. The family asks for donations to go to St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Conners’ name.
Anita Busch contributed