Legions of faithful fans were saddened Friday night by news of the death of actor Mike Connors, best-known as the two-fisted private eye “Mannix” in the eponymous series on CBS-TV from 1967-74.
He took on fearsome criminals as “Joe Mannix” and earlier as police undercover agent “Nick” in the 1959 series “Tightrope.” But, at age 91, Connors lost his last fight to a far more formidable foe: leukemia.
His death means that conservative Republicans in Hollywood are a step closer to becoming extinct. At a time when there were still many “name” stars in Hollywood who were unafraid to be active Republican campaigners, Mike Connors stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, and, of course, Ronald Reagan.
In 1976, when Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination, Connors joined Zimbalist, Stewart, Robert Stack (“Eliot Ness” on The Untouchables), and others to campaign in the primaries for their friend the former California governor.
Arriving at the national convention in Kansas City, Reagan and Ford had fought each other to a standstill. With “Mannix” off the air for less than two years, Connors was an easily- recognized “draw” and could be seen button-holing undecided delegates at hotels to make the case for nominating Reagan.
But it was not to be. Ford edged out Reagan on the convention balloting by 1187 to 1070 votes. In November, Ford lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Four years later, Reagan easily wrapped up the nomination and unseated Carter by a landslide. Mike Connors again hit the campaign trail for his fellow Californian, addressed the party’s national convention, and attended Reagan’s inauguration.
“And he was a great supporter of [California] Governor [George] Deukmejian,” said Ken Khachigian, veteran GOP strategist and architect of Deukmejian’s capture of the governorship in 1982, “Mike spoke tirelessly on his behalf, raised money, and was always a fixture at our events.”
Khachigian explained that his fellow Armenian-American Connors had “a very special relationship with our community. He was an icon when I was growing up and watched him on ‘Tightrope’— such a handsome guy and a star when there were few Armenian stars.”
He recalled “how Armenian Americans everywhere knew that [Connors] was nicknamed ‘Touch’ when he played basketball at the University of California and served in the Army Air Corps in World War II.
“And we all knew his real name was Krekor Ohanian.” (Connors himself insisted that writers for ‘Mannix’ work in the scripts that the sleuth was an Armenian-American and he would often deliver Armenian proverbs while on a case).
An example of Connors’ appeal was found in the 1978 race for Congress in the Fresno (Cal.) area where he grew up. Republican businessman and first-time candidate Chip Pashayan was challenging Democratic Rep. John Krebs. The late Norman Turnette, Pashayan’s quarterback, told me how “when we filmed Chip’s commercials, we found that when we shot him at a particular angle, he looked like ‘Touch’ Connors.” Pashayan unseated Krebs with 54 per cent of the vote.
Always devoted to the land of his ancestors, Connor narrated "The Forgotten Genocide,” J. Michael Hagopian’s documentary about the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. He later narrated Hagopian’s other Armenian-themed documentary, “Ararat Beckons.”
“What I will never forget,” Khachigian said, “was seeing Mike at Gov. Deukmejian’s rallies. He was never preening, never acting as though he was a star everyone should know. He just stood there, said ‘hi’ to people, and waited his turn to speak. He never forgot where his roots were.”
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