When I was a young fella in Ireland, for a lot of people the TV racket amounted to one channel. That was RTE, and rather like CBC, it was and is a hybrid of public and commercial broadcasting. Then, as now, American network shows aired in prime time and we were none the worse for it.
If a U.S. show was even mildly distracting, it had an intense following. There was nothing else to watch. The homes and pubs of Ireland were filled with men who could perform dead-on impressions of police detective Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) on Hawaii Five-O or private eye Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) on Mannix. Everybody watched these shows and everybody had notions about their stars: Everyone in Hollywood was a gazillionaire; that Mike Connors was some tough fella, snarling like he meant it, especially while firing his pistol and driving some fancy American car at breakneck speed.
My dad liked Hawaii Five-O and Mannix, in particular because the leading men anti-heroes were men who wore a jacket and tie and did a hard day's work while simultaneously stopping all manner of villainy with major attitude. Once, when I was doing homework, my dad came home from work, dashed into the kitchen to put on the electric kettle to make a pot of tea and then settled in to watch Hawaii Five-O. Some time later the house was rocked by an explosion. Dad was so involved in the show that he'd forgotten about the kettle, which duly blew up. Mannix was a phenomenon for a while in the early Seventies. Yer man, Joe Mannix, was a caution. A loner, a maverick and always intent on causing mayhem, he was a bit mad, but in a good way.
All of that past comes back to me as I watch the panel being assembled for a talk about the PBS series Pioneers of Television, coming this winter on PBS. I'm looking at the 84-year-old Mike Connors, always and forever in TV history Joe Mannix, moving slowly, but with steely determination. He's on the panel with Nichelle Nichols from Star Trek (she was Uhura and the first African-American woman to play a role other than a servant on U.S. prime time), Linda Evans from Dynasty and The Big Valley, Robert Conrad from The Wild Wild West and many other series, and Martin Landau, still best-known to many as Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible.
When Connors is introduced, he gamely makes a hand gesture as if firing a gun. But he's actually the quiet one on the panel. Nichols has a lot to say about Martin Luther King encouraging her to stay put on Star Trek as a role model. Landau talks much about the acting business back in the day, when he and others did some TV work to pay the rent in between real acting jobs in Broadway plays. Conrad is the joker and flirt, ceaselessly wisecracking and trying to bring the event to an end, as if bored by it all.
But none of them are bored. They all enjoy the attention and the chance to reminisce. And reminisce they do. Some of the notions we had, in my childhood, about TV shows are demolished and some hold up as the plain truth. Connors is asked about his memories of Mannix and the difference between TV then, and now. "Today, what they've got on television is just unreal," he says. "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. So, yeah, when I look back on it, I remember I was tired, and we invented a lot of things." So it turns out that yer man was, in truth, as hard as nails.
But then there's a surprise, something that would have shocked but intrigued my dad. Connors, asked about things he wished he had done, makes a startling revelation:
"Well, I'm a frustrated song-and-dance man, and I'd love to have done the comedy shows à la Everybody Loves Raymond or that type of show, I'd love to have done it. But in our business, once you're type-cast as a certain type, it's very difficult to switch. They just can't see you as a comedian or whatever, when you're supposed to be a tough guy or vice versa. However, I used to love doing The Dean Martin Show, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, doing those shows with Jonathan Winters and all were great pleasures, those variety shows that are no more. To get up and do bits and sketches with those guys and gals was just terrific, and those are the type of things I'd like to have done."
Mother o' God! Tough guy for sure, but secretly longing to sing, dance, and do some comedy bits. Joe Mannix, we hardly knew you.
As for the gazillionaire notion, Conrad sets the record straight: "I go back to thinking when Jack Warner was paying me $315 a week. I could drive on the lot. I had my own parking, my own dressing room. God, I wish I knew you then. [Here he gestures at an amused Linda Evans.]Anyway, my own dressing room and a gym to work out in and to study acting. So I worked. Today these actors are being well-compensated, and I applaud it."
Then Connors is asked a shrewd question about the essential appeal of Mannix and those other hit TV shows of another era. His answer is blunt - "Well, 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, is the public has somebody to pull for or pull against. That's the basis, I think, of television, is you want to root for somebody or root against somebody. And I think the writing in those days was just that. Today, with all due respect, there's some very good stuff on television, but so many of the writers get so clever with their writing, that you don't know who you're pulling for, or for what, or what's going on. You turn to your wife and say, 'What did he say?' and I think that's a problem. You've got to have a definite feeling, 'I'm with her or against what's going on there.'" Then he pauses, as if embarrassed by his eloquence. And he stares out at us and concludes, "That's my opinion!"
And I thought, "Now that is not a mere notion." That's something my dad, an 86-year-old, would agree with and say, "You're right, Joe Mannix!"