‘Mannix’ can’t seem to crack that DVD case

Washington Post

Somewhere out there, in the weird, quivering underbelly of the American dream, “Mannix” still lives.

Somewhere, there’s a place where a sportcoat-clad private eye can whip around L.A. in a convertible, get beaten down by goons, shake it off with a scotch on the rocks, then solve the case of the week with an assist from his leggy secretary.

Somewhere out there, but not on DVD.

“Mannix,” one of the longest-running, most violent (for its time), most popular television detective shows in the medium’s history, has been left out of the DVD trade. It’s fading into the forgotten realm of old television shows nobody remembers. Joe Mannix was, by one count, shot 17 times and knocked unconscious 55 more during the show’s eight-year run, and how great is that? Could those “Law & Order” twits take that kind of abuse?


Mannix was the last of a certain type of American manhood, circa early ‘70s. He wore a tie and a wistful smile. He did not know doubt but was a friend of irony. He didn’t worry about giving women “their space,” and he wasn’t “in touch with his feelings.” He was kind to small dogs, little old ladies, and femmes fatales in deep trouble and short skirts.

He drove too fast, drank too much and smoked like he got paid for it. He slugged people and shot guys. “The body count, even in the first few minutes of the show, could sometimes be appalling,” notes one television reference guide. This was the era of “Who loves ya, baby?” “Book ‘em, Danno!” and “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.”


“I’ve never really understood it myself,” says actor Mike Connors, who became one of the highest-paid stars on television (earning a then-stratospheric $40,000 per episode) at the height of the show’s Top 10 heyday. “We had a better average [rating] than ‘The Rockford Files’ or ‘Hawaii Five-0' over eight years. And yet it’s like it never occurred, it never existed, it never happened.”


More than three decades later, there are at least two websites devoted to it and more than 1,100 people on TVShowsOn have voted for it to be brought back. It was popular on TV Land reruns in the late 1990s, which some people taped and dubbed. Unauthorized DVD copes are for sale online, but Paramount, which controls the rights to the show, has never approved its release on DVD.

“We’ve called, we’ve had hundreds of people petition, I just don’t know why Paramount/Viacom won’t release it,” says Pat Talley, a university librarian in Tennessee who runs a website dedicated to Connors and the show (17 Paseo Verde was Mannix’s address) and is a charter member of the Barracudas, the unofficial fan club named for the Plymouth that Mannix drove. “We’ve really pursued this thing, and we just cannot get an answer. We made tapes of the show during its TV Land run and given them to Mr. Connors. It’s all he has of the show, either.”

Montreal’s Helene Gagne, an assistant manager at a pharmacy, has collected more than 100 “Mannix” scripts, many of them originals. She tracks down locations used on the show, then leads fellow fans on a “Mannix” tour of Los Angeles every year or so. She once met Connors in a restaurant there, and now they exchange Christmas cards.

“Every year we say, ‘This’ll be the year,’ because Paramount keeps putting out old shows, but they just won’t put out ‘Mannix,’ ” she says. “I just want to see the eighth season [never shown in reruns] before I die.”


Meanwhile, the rest of the gang has been pretty much rescued from oblivion by DVD, that pre-"Hill Street Blues” generation of stand-alone cops and anti-hero private dicks who bend the law to save the day: “Kojak,” “Columbo,” “Banacek,” “Baretta,” “Police Woman,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “The Rockford Files,” “Ironside,” “The Streets of San Francisco” and, coming this Christmas, “The Mod Squad.” Even the sixth season of “Magnum, P.I.” was rolled out on DVD earlier this year for Memorial Day, because Magnum had been a Vietnam vet.

But no “Mannix.” Who had been in Korea.

It is to weep.

DVD releases of old television shows have become something of a national pop-culture library, and why something as cool as “Mannix” remains MIA is a minor mystery perhaps only the detective himself could solve.


The people at Viacom, part of the corporate structure that oversees the rights to the show, politely referred us to a spokeswoman for their partners at Paramount, who very politely did not return our repeated calls for two weeks. Spokeswoman Brenda Ciccone finally offered in an e-mail that CBS, yet another branch of the shop, has the rights, adding that it might issue the show next year. We called CBS and got no return calls. We went back to Ciccone, asking who decided what shows get picked and how.

She replied via e-mail that it was “honestly all very complicated.” Consumer demand just isn’t enough! “Legal rights, music clearances, availability of supplemental material and access to talent for new interviews or commentaries” also go in the consideration.

“That’s pretty much what I’ve heard from them for years,” Connors says with a laugh.

This is a shame, because “Mannix” was great, just great -- one of the last unapologetically masculine and completely unrealistic American icons, at least in the myths we tell ourselves on television. Cops and detectives got cute or complicated later, and there really hasn’t been much on television like it since.


It debuted at a turbulent time in American culture, 1967, and Joe Mannix was pretty much a modernized Lone Ranger -- no wife, no kids, no pets, no political views, no close friends. He was hip enough to listen to jazz and to mock himself as “a hard-boiled detective in the classical tradition” but traditional enough to wear a coat and tie and to have good manners.

And there was Gail Fisher as Peggy Fair, the husky-voiced secretary! She even shared top billing, the only actor other than Connors named in the opening credits. Her primary job description seemed to be getting kidnapped.

For the era, when television was the Great White Way, a black actress in a major role was extraordinary. She also won the series’ only Emmy, for best supporting actress in 1970.

“Peggy was like the bright girl from church who got that good job,” remembers Clarence Page, the Chicago Tribune’s Washington columnist, who watched her as a love-struck teen, then wrote a farewell column when she died years later. “You know, she was that girl who was the first to get hired in a white guy’s office, and if she didn’t do well, nobody else was going to get hired, either. She was representing.”


Fisher gained screen time, and the show even skirted with -- gasp! -- an interracial romance.

Connors went on to work steadily in dozens of television roles, invested wisely and retired comfortably in Encino with his wife of more than half a century, Mary Lou Willey. He’s 82 and has dinner with Robert Wagner a lot.

Robert Reed, often appearing as Mannix’s source at the LAPD, went on to camp television history as America’s Dad, Mike Brady, in “The Brady Bunch.” He died from complications of AIDS in 1992.

Legendary composer Lalo Schifrin said in a telephone interview that the elegant music he composed for the show, a unique jazz waltz, is second only to his “Mission: Impossible” theme in popularity. People ask for it all the time, he says.


Shortly after the series ended, Fisher was arrested for drugs. She got divorced. She later had one guest appearance on “Fantasy Island” and another on “Knight Rider.” She did a god-awful independent film called “Mankillers” and a bit role in the 1990 TV movie “Donor.” She was 54. She developed diabetes and emphysema.

In 2000, the National Enquirer asked Connors if he’d go with a reporter to deliver flowers and cards from well-wishing readers. He said sure.

“It was really sad,” he says. “I hadn’t seen her in years. She was in a nursing home over on Olympic Boulevard. She was using a wheelchair.”

She died that December. No media outlet, other than the Enquirer, reported her death for another month -- not even her hometown paper back in New Jersey.


Her ashes were scattered in the Pacific, the same ocean by which she once walked arm in arm on the beach with handsome Mike Connors, and the sunlight had played upon her face and her smile and her future had looked so bright.

The only way to see one of television’s great detectives now is on those dubbed tapes from TV Land. The quality is lousy, but you get the snazzy opening theme. Trapped in time, Mannix goes sprinting across a suspension bridge in Long Beach, tie flapping over his shoulder.

His name spells out in rectangular boxes on the screen, M-A-N-N-I-X, over shots of him jumping out of a car, swimming, driving a race car or swirling a blond around in the sunlight, her skirt twisting above her hips. Days were tough there at 17 Paseo Verde, what with gunfire, exploding cars and hit men trying to cancel your oxygen supply.

But it also had Peggy’s smile, the convertible out front, the .38 in the top right-hand desk drawer, the promise of a date for dinner. A man could take it in, tie loosened, scotch in the crystal decanter, smokes in the soft pack.


The rest of the 20th century hadn’t happened yet.

It was a good life.