CelebrityHollywood

October 24, 2021

Gail Fisher's Life after 'Mannix' Including Failed Marriages, Arrests and Tragic Death at 65

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Gail Fisher may have been one of the first Black women to play substantial roles in American TV, but she battled demons, faced the law, and died earlier than expected.

The way Black people were portrayed in Hollywood changed in the late '60s and early '70s. This change in perception was due to, in part, to Golden Globe-winning Actress Gail Fisher.

When Black actresses were scarce, Fisher fought hard for her dreams and broke down stereotypes to change the entertainment industry. Here's everything we found about the legendary "Mannix" star.

Gail Fisher as Peggy Fair in "Mannix" in April 1971 | Photo: Getty Images

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CHILDHOOD OF A STAR

Born in Orange, New Jersey, in August 1935, Fisher grew up with her four older siblings in Potters Crossing, a majority Black section of Edison Township. Right from the start, things were complicated

Her father, a carpenter, passed away when she was two years old, so her mother, Ona, raised her five kids independently. The actress once credited Ona for bringing her up to know that there was nothing she couldn't do.  

When Fisher was a teenager, she joined the Metuchen High School's cheerleader team. However, she was very passionate about acting, especially after landing a leading role in one of the school's plays.

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Gail Fisher as Peggy Fair in "Mannix" in May 1968 in Los Angeles, California | Photo: Getty Images

She put her attractive looks to good use by participating (and winning) some beauty contests, too, including Miss Transit, Miss Black New Jersey, and Miss Press Photographer.

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Fisher's beauty pageant days were so successful that she even became the first Black semifinalist in the New Jersey State Fair beauty contest. That was just one of the many firsts in her life.

Through a Coca-Cola-sponsored beauty contest, Fisher got the opportunity to study acting at New York's American Academy of Arts for two years.

Gail Fisher in a Listerine print advertisement from the mid-1960s | Photo: YouTube/Most Actor & Actress Hollywood

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To pay for her acting lessons, though, she worked in a factory, modeled whenever she got the chance and skipped some of her meals to save money. It was all worth it as she studied with Group Theatre co-founder Lee Strasberg. 

Fisher eventually became the first Black member of the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center (currently known as the Vivian Beaumont Theater). There she worked with film and theater directors Elia Kazan and Herbert Blau.

[Fisher's] performance was so outstanding that she took home an Emmy Award and two Golden Globes.

Publicity photo of Gail Fisher | Photo: YouTube/Most Actor & Actress Hollywood

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RISING TO STARDOM

Although Fisher made her TV debut in a 1959 episode of "Play of the Week," she started earning people's respect later. Fans gave Fisher recognition after working with Blau in the theatrical production of "Danton's Death" in 1965 and touring with a production of "A Raisin in the Sun." 

Also, in the early '60s, she made history as the first Black actor – male or female – to appear with a speaking part on a national TV commercial. It was an ad for the laundry detergent All. 

In 1964, Fisher married her first husband, a bassist and jazz talent manager called John Levy. He managed famous jazz artists, including Cannonball Adderley, Freddie Hubbard, and Joe Williams. Levy also worked Fisher's career.

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Publicity photo of Gail Fisher | Photo: YouTube/Most Actor & Actress Hollywood

After having two daughters – Samara and Jole – Fisher took a break from her family life and moved to California to follow her acting dreams. It was the best decision of her career. 

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Although she initially landed parts in minor shows, she eventually booked the role of Peggy Fair in "Mannix," an action series about detective Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) working for a high-tech agency.

The TV show's first season was forgettable and failed to catch an audience. In the second season, the production included Fisher's character to be Mannix's sidekick to avoid cancellation, and it paid off

Publicity photo of Gail Fisher | Photo: YouTube/Most Actor & Actress Hollywood

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Her performance was so outstanding that she took home an Emmy Award and two Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actress in a TV series. It is important to remark that Fisher became the first Black actress to win both accolades.

"Mannix" ratings soared with Fisher's inclusion. However, writers avoided anything that could suggest that Mannix and Peggy were in love as interracial romance was a taboo subject for television at the time.

[Fisher] irreparably damaged her career in 1978 when she was arrested for possession of marijuana and cocaine.

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In a 1972 interview, Fisher pointed out that some people who didn't know anything about Black people may have learned something through her character in the show. She added

"Blacks were pretty much alien objects on TV as recently as 10 years ago. 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."

Gail Fisher and Mark Stewart in "Mannix" circa 1970 | Photo: YouTube/Most Actor & Actress Hollywood

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Before becoming the most successful Black actress in the States, Fisher's friends and family believed she was crazy for choosing an acting career. They would tell her, "Honey, there ain't any Black actresses."

It is fair to say that Fisher's character helped save "Mannix," which was canceled in 1975. After that, the actress's life and career sadly started spiraling out of control.

Gail Fisher as Peggy Fair in "Mannix" in the1970s | Photo: YouTube/Most Actor & Actress Hollywood

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THE DOWNFALL

Fisher had a hard time landing substantial roles following "Mannix." After divorcing Levy in 1972, she married and divorced many other men, including Robert A. Walker. During that time, she also developed an addiction to drugs

She irreparably damaged her career in 1978 when she was arrested for possession of marijuana and cocaine and using an illegal phone device. Although she entered rehab and got better, she could never win her career back.

Her addiction was so severe that it ended up negatively affecting her health. Apart from being a diabetic, Fisher was eventually diagnosed with emphysema, a lung disease mainly caused by smoking or exposure to air pollution.

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James Brolin and Gail Fisher at The 22nd Annual Emmy Awards on June 7, 1970 in Los Angeles, California | Photo: Getty Images

On December 2, 2000, she died at a Los Angeles hospital of kidney failure. She was just 65 years old. Following her passing, her "Mannix" co-star Mike Connors said she paved the way for several people and changed how people saw Black actresses.  

While Fisher indeed opened new grounds for Black women in Hollywood, Halle Berry is the only Black actress to win an Oscar for Best Actress, so there's still a long way ahead. Rest in peace, legend.

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