A classy, smart-looking African-American actress who broke racial barriers in 1970s Hollywood but suffered greatly in her private life years after her TV glory days, award-winning actress Gail Fisher was born on August 18, 1935, in Orange, New Jersey, the youngest of five children. Her father, a carpenter, died when she was only two years old and the family was destitute, living in the slums (“Potters Crossing”) with their widowed mother Ona Fisher. Gail was a cheerleader as a teen and found some joy performing a leading role in one of her Metuchen High School plays in Metuchen, New Jersey. Beauty pageants became a source of pride during this period, earning distinction on the beauty-pageant circuit and becoming the first African-American semifinalist in the New Jersey State Fair beauty contest. A multiple pageant winner, among her titles were “Miss Transit,” “Miss Black New Jersey” and “Miss Press Photographer.”
Thanks to a contest sponsored by Coca-Cola, Gail won the chance to study acting at New York’s American Academy of Arts for two years. She trained under Lee Strasberg for a time and subsequently became a member (the first African-American accepted) of the Repertory Theater at Lincoln Center, where she worked with Elia Kazan and Herbert Blau. The young serene beauty also worked as a model at the time and even worked in a factory to pay bills. In 1964 she married John Levy (1912-2012), a bassist and pioneer jazz talent manager whose clients included some of the jazz world’s biggest names (Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams, Cannonball Adderley, Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Abbey Lincoln, Shirley Horn, Les McCann, Wes Montgomery). He also managed Gail’s acting career. John and Gail, who was his second wife, had two children, Samara and Jole.
In 1965, teacher Herbert Blau cast Gail in a classical stage production of “Danton’s Death” in 1965. Gail also understudied Ruby Dee in “Purlie Victorious” on Broadway and toured with a production of “A Raisin in the Sun”. The 25-year-old broke into TV years earlier in 1959, appearing in the syndicated program “Play of the Week” entitled “Simply Heavenly,” a musical starring Mel Stewart and Claudia McNeil, and also played a singer in the series “The Defenders” and a judge on daytime’s “General Hospital”. During the early part of the 1960s, she made history when she appeared in a nationally televised commercial for All laundry detergent and became the first black performer to be given dialogue.
The crime series Mannix (1967) starring Mike Connors was revamped in its second season due to mediocre ratings and Gail was added to the mix as Peggy Fair, Mannix’s widowed secretary whose murdered husband, a cop, was a friend to the detective and who was now raising their small son alone. Sometimes Peggy would go undercover as a housekeeper or prostitute to help him solve crimes. The public immediately took to the dusky-voiced actress and the ratings soared. Any slight hint of romance between the Peggy Fair and Joe Mannix characters was never acted upon as CBS (who initially was hesitant in hiring a black woman in this role), or any other network for that matter, would not allow an interracial romance. Gail went on to win an Emmy (the first black actress to do so — besting Susan Saint James of “McMillan and Wife” and Barbara Anderson of “Ironside”) and two Golden Globe trophies (the first black actress to win this award) in the process. In between she made amiable guest appearances on such popular TV series as “My Three Sons,” “Love, American Style” and “Room 222.”
Once “Mannix” was canceled in 1975, however, acting offers slowed down considerably and chaos rose beneath her usually calm and controlled exterior. Not in keeping with her public image, she flew into a series of marriages and divorces and developed a major drug problem. She made tabloid headlines in 1978 when she was busted for possession of marijuana and cocaine and for using an illegal phone device. She entered rehab and eventually recovered but her career was irreparably damaged. Sporadic acting roles came in such series as “Medical Center,” “Fantasy Island,” “Knight Rider” and “Hotel,” and the TV-movie Donor (1990) and the Grade “Z” crime film Mankillers (1987) co-starring Edd Byrnes, but they were very few and far between. Fisher was married at least twice and had two daughters, Samara and Jole, from her marriage to John Levy, which ended in divorce in 1972 during the run of “Mannix”. She briefly married second husband Robert A. Walker the following year.
Gail’s battle with drug addiction contributed to her health decline. A diabetic as well, she was later diagnosed with emphysema. Gail died of renal failure in Los Angeles in 2000 at age 65 and was cremated. Unnoticed and forgotten, news of her death did not surface until four months later. Survived by brother Herbert and sister Ona, another brother, Clifton, died of heart failure twelve hours after Gail’s passing. Gail was such a class act on TV and it is inconceivable that she could fall from grace as hard as she did…but she did.
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