Q and A: 'Emergency!' star Randolph Mantooth, in town for Purple Rose show, talks about acting, paramedics and online gossip
Randolph Mantooth, who played iconic paramedic/firefighter John Gage on the 1970s television drama “Emergency!”, recently arrived in Chelsea to star in a production of Tracy Letts’ comic drama “Superior Donuts” at the Purple Rose Theatre Company. He recently answered some questions from AnnArbor.com.
Q. Have you always tried to strike a balance between television work and stage work?
A. I don’t choose the medium. I choose the role. If the role’s good, I don’t care if it’s on the radio. If I like the role, I’ll find a way to do it.
I hear a lot of people say, “You did a soap opera?” Yeah, I did. And I loved every moment of it. I had the time of my life. But then I was offered a soap opera out in California (“General Hospital”), and I hated it. Hated it. I did everything in my power—and I was making a lot of money—I did everything in my power to get out of it. I told my agent, “You’ve got to get me out of this. I don’t want to do this. I hate it.” And they said, “Now, now.” And I said, “Look, if you don’t get me out, I’ll get me out, and I don’t think you’re going to like the way I’m going to get me out.”
Q. So which soap opera was the one you enjoyed so much?
A. I did “Loving,” which was a little half-hour show that nobody watched. And I never had more fun in my life. I would literally swing my feet out of bed every morning and go, “They’re paying me!” You’re in New York City, being paid a lot of money to be around very beautiful women, doing a role that you absolutely love, and you get to theater at night. That doesn’t happen in L.A. In L.A, you go to a bar at night that has palm trees in the middle of it. It’s so vacuous.
Q. Was part of the appeal getting the chance to be over-the-top?
A. We had some people that would be a little over the top, but I was playing it straight from the heart. And everybody else was playing it straight from the heart. You get on other soaps and it’s like—we never paid attention to the words. That’s awful to say, and I’d never tell a writer that. But oftentimes, we would rewrite it. And it was the most fun. We were on a little half-hour show that nobody watched. But if you were on “All My Children” or “General Hospital,” you can’t touch those words. They won’t let you touch them.
But here was this little show, a half hour, always at the bottom of the ratings. So we had nothing to lose. So we’d say, “Let’s try it this way.” So then they canceled the show and killed off a lot of the characters and made it into a show called “The City.” Then they started using handheld cameras, moving cameras around, and building sets like movie sets, and we started having complex scenes, dialogue, and it was so un-soap-like, because the camera was always moving. I asked my mom, I said, Mom, what do you think of the show? She goes, “It’s interesting. I get a little seasick.” But we had more fun doing it because they let us be creative. On other soaps, not so much.
Q. You’re most known for “Emergency!”, of course, and what people may not know is that the show’s popularity sparked real-world change.
A. “Emergency!” didn’t invent paramedics, but what it did was, it exposed them to the world. Because in 1971 there were only 8 paramedics in all of California, and I think there were 6 in Seattle, and I think there were 8 or 10 in Miami, Florida. They didn’t exist. In fact, when I was told that I was told I was going to play Los Angeles County firefighter paramedic Johnny Gage, the first thing I said was, “What the hell’s a paramedic?”
I didn’t know what a paramedic was. Nobody did. And I said, “Well, is that like a doctor who parachutes onto people?” And if you’ve ever seen the show, you know I wasn’t so far off. But the whole idea of paramedics was so opposed from the beginning. From 1969 to 1971, it was so opposed by doctors who said, “Nobody can do what we do in the field”; by nurses, because they thought they were being replaced; politicians didn’t want to pay for it; and fire departments wanted nothing to do with it. Their mantra was, “We put out fires, we don’t deliver babies.”
But this was a revolutionary idea that, if allowed to happen, was going to change the face of emergency medicine forever, as we knew it. And because “Emergency!” exposed it to the public, gave it a national platform, the whole country at one time could see this work in progress, and watch it really work—because we didn’t make anything up. Every rescue we did came out of somebody’s fire log. And the country instinctively—every audience that sits down here at the Purple Rose, every audience that sits in front of their TV, they know the truth when they see it. They may not be able to articulate it, but they know it. And that’s what makes a long-running show, is when they see the truth, they just sit back and get lost in it.
That’s what “Emergency!” did. And “Emergency!” was finally recognized in 2000, when our show was inducted into the Smithsonian for American history, and it wasn’t in the entertainment section. It was in the public-service section. And that was the proudest moment of my life.
If you were born before 1971, and you were in a bad car accident, or you had a heart attack or whatever, and you couldn’t get yourself to the hospital, you were really in a lot of trouble. And from the time that show started in ‘71, ‘til it ended in ‘79, we went from not knowing and never having heard the word ‘paramedic’ before to being within 4-7 minutes of lifesaving services.
Q. Did you have any sense, when first getting involved in the show, that this was something viewers might really key in to and be excited by?
A. I had no idea at all. In fact, we thought we were going to be canceled constantly. Every year we thought was our last year, because we were against “All in the Family.” That was always the big debate: do I watch my show, or do I watch “All in the Family”? Because I really had grown paranoid. And I told my mom, “If you watch ‘All in the Family,’ that’s fine. Just don’t tell me.”
Q. You have several one-off appearances on some classic ‘80s shows like “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island.” Was that fun?
A. Hated them. All of them. I just didn’t like those shows. But they paid very well. You get to meet a lot of people, I guess. You found out who’s the good people who’s the bad people, but
Q. Let’s bust some myths about you that are floating around online. I read on IMDB that you’re supposedly Angela Lansbury’s first cousin.
A. Good God, really? I’ll check with my mom, but I’m quite sure that’s overexaggerated. Also, some website says I was engaged to be married to Joyce Dewitt—and I never met the lady in my life. Who the hell writes this stuff?
Q. One site made a point of explaining that while you played a paramedic on television, you aren’t one in real life.
A. I did take a paramedics course, before we ever did the show. It was only to make us as proficient in front of the camera as we possibly could be. Of course when I was taking the course, both of us (Mantooth and Kevin Tighe), they didn’t know who we were, because we weren’t Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto. The show wasn’t on the air. So they were always wondering who the hell we were. We were always there for the physical stuff, but we were never taking the tests with everybody else. So they couldn’t figure out how in the world we could possibly do this. And then, finally, they realized, oh, we were actors, and we were coming to learn how to do things like put in an IV.
And that’s where I got the fever. When you do an IV, you find a vein, wherever you can find a vein, and I did it on a guy who had garden hoses for veins, so I couldn’t have missed. He was a firefighter, and he goes, “Keep pushing, keep pushing,” and there’s this little pop when you do it, and I went “Cool.” And he said, “Get away from me, you’re enjoying this way too much.” I never forgot that moment. I thought, “I could do this.” And then we had to go train to be a firefighter.
So they made darn sure we knew what we were doing in front of the camera, because Jack Webb, who owned the show—he did not create the show, that was Bob Cinader, who created the show and was our executive producer for those seven years—they argued about everything else, but they both said, “We’re going to make this show as realistic and authentic as we can get away with.” And what I mean by “get away with” is, this was the ‘70s, and the first thing NBC said was that they didn’t want to do the show because it looked too much like a documentary. Can you imagine that? But in the ‘70s prism, they felt it was just too much of a documentary. And they told us, fine, we’ll let you do the show, but nobody can die, and there can be no blood. And the two producers said, “Are you kidding me? This is a show about emergencies. People die. People bleed.” And of course, the more popular we got, the more people died, the more people bled.
Q. So how did “Emergency!” manage to thrive, despite being on at the same time as “All in the Family”?
A. Here’s who was watching “All in the Family”: adults. And here’s who was watching “Emergency!”: kids. Because if you were between the ages of 21 and 23 at 8 o’clock on Saturday night, you weren’t watching TV. You were in a bar or at a party. So I could go to any bar at the height of the show, and nobody knew who the hell I was. But I couldn’t go into the supermarkets, because the kids would follow me around. “Oh, look he’s buying mayonnaise!”
And then, when “Emergency!” went into syndication, I could go to the supermarkets unmolested, but I couldn’t go into the bars, because they were all now old enough to drink. So that’s who was watching “Emergency!” And at that time, there were only a couple of channels, so there were 30 million people a week watching.
"Superior Donuts" starts preview performances Sept. 20 at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea. Watch for a full preview coming soon on AnnArbor.com, and order tickets from the Purple Rose website. Jenn McKee is the entertainment digital journalist for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2546, and follow her on Twitter @jennmckee.