By Eric Grode
LOS ANGELES (Los Angeles Times) — Mike Connors, born Krekor Ohanian, who broke free of years of supporting roles when he found stardom in the late 1960s as a maverick private investigator on the CBS series “Mannix,” which went on to enjoy an eight-season run, died on Thursday, January 26, in Los Angeles. He was 91.
His son-in-law Mike Condon said the death, at a hospital, was caused by complications of leukemia, which had been diagnosed a week earlier, The Associated Press reported.
In the series, which had its premiere in 1967, Mr. Connors played the darkly handsome Joe Mannix, a Korean War veteran of (like Mr. Connors) Armenian descent who sleuthed his way around Los Angeles with flashy cars and a penchant for citing Armenian proverbs.
Unlike many a smooth TV private eye, Mannix took his lumps. The Washington Post, tabulating the wear and tear the character withstood over eight seasons, found that he had endured 17 gunshot wounds and 55 beatings that left him unconscious.
The violence drew criticism in some quarters, but “Mannix” became the most popular crime series on television in an era punctuated by comedies like “All in the Family” and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” For several years it shared CBS’s Saturday night lineup with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” whose own star died on Wednesday.
“Mannix” made Mr. Connors one of the highest-paid television actors of the 1970s; by the end of its run he was earning $40,000 an episode (almost $180,000 in today’s dollars). The role brought him four Emmy Award nominations and a Golden Globe Award.
“Mannix” was also notable as one of the first regular series to provide a leading role to an African-American: Gail Fisher joined the show in its second season as Mannix’s secretary, frequent damsel in distress and occasional potential love interest. She died at 65 in 2000.
Krekor Ohanian was born on August 15, 1925, in Fresno, Calif. He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II, then enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he played basketball on a scholarship, earning the nickname “Touch” on the court. His father was a lawyer, many of whose clients were poor and would often pay him with fruit, vegetables or chickens, Mr. Connors told an interviewer.
His plans to study law were interrupted when the director William A. Wellman saw him on the basketball court and encouraged him to try acting. One of his first film roles was in Wellman’s 1953 adventure film, “Island in the Sky,” which starred John Wayne.
Under the name Touch Connors, he appeared in several low-budget B-movies (“Swamp Women,” “Flesh and the Spur”), many of them for the director Roger Corman, and at least one enduring film: “The Ten Commandments” (1956), in which he played a herder.
He bounced between film and television for much of the 1950s, appearing on numerous series, including “The Millionaire,” “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun — Will Travel.” He was also persuaded to change his first name to Michael and then Mike.
In 1959 Mr. Connors landed a lead role on the series “Tightrope,” on which he played an undercover agent with one revolver in his shoulder holster and another hidden behind his back. It received good ratings but was canceled after one season; complaints about excessive violence were cited as one factor — an issue that would resurface in “Mannix.”
The 1960s brought him more guest-starring roles on television (“The Untouchables,” “Perry Mason,” “The Red Skelton Hour”) as well as movie parts (supporting roles in “Harlow” and “Stagecoach” and a leading role in the panned spy-movie spoof “Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die”).
Then came “Mannix.” During its run Lucille Ball and Mr. Connors produced a crossover episode of her sitcom “Here’s Lucy,” titled “Lucy and Mannix Are Held Hostage.”
Mr. Connors used his fame from “Mannix” to publicize a then-underreported chapter in Armenian history by narrating “The Forgotten Genocide,” J. Michael Hagopian’s 1975 documentary about the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. He later narrated another Armenian-themed documentary, “Ararat Beckons,” by the same director.
He had another leading role in 1981, on the ABC crime series “Today’s FBI,” which lasted only one season. The rest of the 1980s and ’90s brought more TV guest appearances (“The Love Boat,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “Diagnosis: Murder,” in which he and several of his “Mannix” co-stars reprised their characters); parts on mini-series including “War and Remembrance,” based on the Herman Wouk novel; and various roles in films and TV movies.
He also appeared on a 2007 episode of the sitcom “Two and a Half Men.”
He is survived by Mary Lou Wells, his wife of 67 years; a daughter, Dena; and a granddaughter.
In talking about his career with Tom Weaver for the 2003 book “Eye on Science Fiction: 20 Interviews With Classic SF and Horror Filmmakers,” Mr. Connors recalled the 1950s as a time of both ambition and dreams deferred.
“My favorite actors in those days were Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Bill Holden,” he said, adding that he had admired them for their “natural-type acting” and had wished for roles like theirs.
“I knew the type of acting I liked — that very natural type of acting,” he said, “but I just wanted to be successful. So, whatever. I was willing to do anything that they’d hire me for.”