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Gail Fisher; Won Emmy for Work in 'Mannix'

February 23, 2001|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Gail Fisher, who won an Emmy for her role on the 1970s television series "Mannix," has died.

Fisher died of kidney failure Dec. 2 at a hospital in Los Angeles. She was 65.

The actress played Peggy Fair, the widowed secretary of tough-guy detective Joe Mannix, on the popular series that aired on CBS from 1967 to 1975. She became one of the most prominent black actresses of the time.

She also was credited as being the first black actress to appear in a national TV commercial with speaking lines. She pitched the detergent All in 1961.

The "Mannix" role, added in the show's second season to boost ratings, had not been created with a black woman in mind. Fisher won the part after reading for it five times.

In the beginning, the actress recalled, her character did little beyond answer the phone or fetch coffee for her private-investigator boss, played by Mike Connors. Gradually, the role was broadened to the point that Fisher's character was always there to help the detective out of a scrape or untangle confusing evidence.

Fisher won praise for elevating a bit part to nearly co-star status within her first season. She earned an Emmy for best supporting actress in a drama in 1970 and was nominated four additional times.

She was proud of her work on the show, one of the longest-running and most violent detective series of its time, in part because her role created a positive image of blacks.

"Well, certain people who had no knowledge of blacks have maybe--maybe--learned something because of 'Mannix's' Peggy Fair," she told an interviewer in 1972. "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."

Fisher was born in Orange, N.J., and grew up in Potters Crossing, which a 1970 studio biography said was often called "the worst rural slum on the Eastern seaboard." Her father was a carpenter who died when she was 2. Her mother struggled to raise five children alone; Fisher was the youngest.

The "Mannix" role was the high point of an acting career that began with the lead in a high school play when Fisher was 17.

She went on to win distinction on the beauty-pageant circuit, becoming the first African American semifinalist in the New Jersey State Fair beauty contest. She also was Miss Black New Jersey, Miss Transit and Miss Press Photographer.

She became a successful model before turning to work on the stage and in television. She was the first African American accepted to New York's Lincoln Arts Center repertory theater, training under Elia Kazan. She also toured with a production of "A Raisin in the Sun."

After "Mannix" was canceled, her acting roles became sporadic and she battled drug problems. She was arrested in 1978 for cocaine possession and agreed to enter a drug diversion program.

Married several times, Fisher is survived by daughters Samara Maxe of San Diego and Jole Baerga of Hackensack, N.J.; a brother, Herbert Fisher of Randallstown, Md.; and a sister, Ona Gaither of Alexandria, Va.

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