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Obituaries

Anthony Eisley, 78; Television Detective and B-Movie Actor

February 03, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Anthony Eisley, the tall, dark and handsome mustachioed actor best remembered as half of television's glamorous detective duo on the series "Hawaiian Eye," has died. He was 78.

Eisley, who played Tracy Steele to Robert Conrad's Tom Lopaka in the show, which ran from 1959 to 1963, died Wednesday in Woodland Hills of unspecified causes.

Often dubbed "77 Sunset Strip played in Hawaii," the show also starred Connie Stevens as Cricket Blake and Poncie Ponce as Kazuo Kim, the one-man taxi company with legions of helpful relatives. In its fourth year, Eisley was eased out for a new detective played by Troy Donahue. The show, made by Warner Bros. after the studio spawned the era's prototype private detective show "77 Sunset Strip," featured occasional visits from Eisley's "Sunset Strip" counterpart Stuart Bailey (played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr.).

"Hawaiian Eye" was light entertainment, with lots of beautiful people in a beautiful setting, funny wisecracks and crimes that always got neatly solved without too much visible gore. But when a Times television critic belittled the show, along with others of its kind, Eisley defended it in an erudite letter printed Dec. 7, 1960, in the critic's column.

"I personally was fascinated by the opening episode of 'Winston Churchill -- the Valiant Years,' " Eisley wrote, "but after a hard day's work I also enjoy a bit of pure escapist fare."

Inviting the critic to view a particular "Hawaiian Eye" segment, Eisley, who wrote a few episodes of the show, added: "I too would like to see more food for thought on television. I have children whose viewpoints will be largely affected in certain areas by their many hours gazing at the one-eyed monster. But our world is solemn enough as it is. I'd hate to limit them -- or myself -- to a leisure-time diet devoid of laughter, adventure and romance."

Born Frederick Glendinning Eisley in Philadelphia, the handsome youth liked performing in high school plays, but never thought he would have any opportunity to become an actor. He studied drama at the University of Miami, "not because I thought I could really be an actor," he once said, "but because I was taking the easy way out to get a degree."

But he eventually got a job with a stock company in Pennsylvania and worked his way into touring versions of such Broadway productions as "Mister Roberts," "Picnic" and "The Desperate Hours."

Eisley, originally billed as Fred Eisley until Warner Bros. changed his name to Anthony Eisley for the "Hawaiian Eye" role, found work in television by the 1950s. He began with appearances on "Operation Secret" and "Fearless Fagan" both in 1952 and guest-starred a few years later on "The Real McCoys" and "Perry Mason."

Warner Bros. gave Eisley a contract and cast him for "Hawaiian Eye" after he was seen starring in the comedy play "Who Was That Lady?" at the Players Ring Theater in Los Angeles. Eisley thought the studio wanted him for light comedy.

"I had visions of being the next Jack Lemmon," he once told sci-fi writer Tom Weaver for Fangoria magazine. "Instead they put me in 'Hawaiian Eye,' and I have no complaints about that, but ... I never really got to do what I felt that I did best."

After the "Hawaiian Eye" series expanded his visibility, Eisley was sought out for guest appearances on the top-rated series of the period, moving in next door to the Petries on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and dating Mary Richards on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

He also appeared in the 1960s "The Outer Limits" and for more than three decades guest-starred on such popular television series as "Dragnet," "The F.B.I.," "The Wild Wild West," "Mannix," "Ironside," "Emergency!", "The Rookies," "Barnaby Jones" and "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Developing a reputation as a smooth B-picture leading man, Eisley starred in such "exploitation" and horror genre shows as "Wasp Woman" in 1959, "The Navy vs. the Night Monsters" in 1966, "The Witchmaker" in 1969, "Dracula vs. Frankenstein" in 1971, "Monster" in 1979 and "Evil Spirits" in 1990. He often worked for director Sam Fuller, including portraying a sleazy cop in Fuller's raw 1964 movie "The Naked Kiss."

"Eisley's science-fiction pictures turned out to be truly outlandish ones," Weaver said Sunday. "He even played a monster himself in a picture that went unreleased for decades because it was so awful, 'The Mummy and the Curse of the Jackals.'

"But with all the stage training and then all the experience he got in front of a camera in his TV days," Weaver added, "he invariably looked and acted more professional than everyone and everything around him in those pictures ... he was sometimes the best thing about them."

As his acting career waned, Eisley worked as a stunt driver.

In his retirement years, he told Weaver he had no regrets about never having achieved true stardom. "The business was good to me," he said, "in the sense that, overall, I had ... a good time and I made a living and my kids -- none of 'em starved."

A widower, Eisley is survived by his four children, David, Nan, Jonathan and Amanda; and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Tuesday in the Church of the Hills at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.

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