Saturday, February 1, 2014

Peggy from Mannix: The Spectacular Rise & Fall of Gail Fisher

I liked this show as a kid and it holds up well today. I was especially fond of Mannix' secretary Peggy played by Gail Fisher. There's a special place in heaven for actors who could take what few lines they were given and mold precious moments, create transcendent characters that resonated. For actors of color it was more difficult with no established stereotypes to fall back on that weren't negative, a hurdle lighter skinned co-stars rarely faced.

Example: Mike Connors could play what we all recognized as the hard-nosed detective without having to establish that notion in our heads.  Gail Fisher was cast in a subordinate role, her media predecessors were almost entirely maids and servants... yet somehow she shattered that mold in a big way.

Some Mannix episodes are quite effective, many are boiler plate TV dramas of the era, but one thing that struck me was the superb cinematography with unusual camera angles and inventive setups.

No doubt about it, the Mannix theme song is one of the most exciting in TV history.

Sad to say, Gail Fisher was one of the first African-Americans to ever have a major role on a TV program. Mannix aired from 1967-1975, Fisher joined the cast in 1968. In contrast Nichelle Nichols was on Star Trek from 1966-1969. 

Although there were episodes written around her character, some of the best episodes in fact, Peggy often had little more to do than hand Mannix the mail and recap the plot. She was always treated with deference, as an equal by everyone. And it wasn't uncommon for Peggy to see what Mannix couldn't and find the missing link that solved the case.

(Fisher was also the first black female to be seen on camera and have lines in a national TV commercial, that was in the early-1960s.)

In 1972 she stated, ''Well, certain people who had no knowledge of blacks have maybe -- maybe -- learned something because of 'Mannix's' Peggy Fair.' Blacks were pretty much alien objects on TV as recently as 10 years ago, you know, and now we're people. I think maybe before it's all over, it's going to be all right, and I'm proud I'm a part of that.''

She won an Emmy for the role of Peggy, the first black actress to do so, and was nominated another four times. Nominated for a Golden Globe four times she became the first black actress to win that award. She won it twice, deservedly so. And she couldn't get another TV gig? For whatever reason Gail Fisher virtually disappeared from TV after Mannix was cancelled in 1975.

A troubled personal life followed - bad marriages and drugs, no doubt fueled by the industry's lack of interest. Fisher made headlines in 1978 when she was busted for possession of pot and coke and for using an illegal phone device.

Gail Fisher was an actress with grace and style at a time when you could count on one hand the number of women of color who had ever had an important role on a network television show. She died in 2000 of kidney failure, she was 65.