When young actors take on a role in a fledgling television series, they often have no idea whether it will make it past the first season. But there are rare instances when a show – and a character – not only succeed, but become an enduring part of the national psyche.
Though he humbly resists taking any credit for the success of Emergency! – the '70s-era TV series that made "D5W TKO" a household phrase – Randolph Mantooth’s portrayal of handsome young firefighter/paramedic Johnny Gage was a large part of the show’s early success and lasting legacy.
Ask any paramedic or firefighter of a certain age why they chose their profession, and chances are 'Johnny Gage' will be part of their response. To this day, Mantooth is recognized the world over for the iconic role, and now spends much of his time as a keynote speaker at Fire Service and EMS events and conferences.
While best known for Emergency!, Mantooth has had a prolific career in television, film and theater for more than 40 years, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes – including an exciting new project that you can read about in the next part of this interview. Please like and follow his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/RandolphMantooth.
This interview is for our Legacy Series. It’s about people who have made a difference in the world over the course of several decades, and you definitely fit that category! It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 45 years since the pilot episode of Emergency! first aired. How does it feel to still be recognized around the world from that iconic role?
It’s gratifying, but strange. Kevin and I never knew we were doing such an important show. We were just getting up and going to work like everyone else. To tell you the truth, it took us about three years to realize we weren’t going to get canceled, because we thought we were going to get canceled every year. After about the third year, we thought, okay, maybe we’re in for the long haul.
Why did you think the show might be canceled in those first years?
We were up against All in the Family. We never won our hour in the seven years we were on the air. We would always beat ABC, but CBS had All in the Family and the whole world was watching that. We didn’t think we had a chance. In retrospect, we were looking at the popularity of the show with an adult audience, but we were mostly playing for kids – young kids who didn’t relate that much to All in the Family. We didn’t realize that all of those young, impressionable kids were thinking, “Oh, that’s what I want to be. I want to be a firefighter.” Somehow it plugged into their civic sensibilities and they decided that’s what they wanted to be.
Some of the older people that were already doing this work – or not – all of a sudden changed careers and decided they wanted to be a firefighter or a paramedic or both. But, did we know this was going on at the time? No. I don’t think I realized the impact of the show on the national psyche until May of 2000, when the show was inducted into the Smithsonian Museum of American History. That’s when I realized maybe the show really did make a difference.
It absolutely did make a difference and I was one of those young people who became a paramedic, at least in part because of Emergency! An entire generation ended up pursuing careers in public safety from watching the show. On some level, you must find it fulfilling to know that you were part of something that had a profound and positive impact on people’s lives.
I do. It is fulfilling. All I can say is that Kevin and I were the luckiest people in the world, because we had climbed aboard a tiger and all we could do was hang on. It really wasn’t anything we did. At the time, it was a lot of work memorizing medical phrases that we didn’t know – half the time, I was saying, “Somebody made this word up,” and they said, “No, that’s a real procedure.”
We were learning as we went, even though we received some training with paramedics and firefighters before we ever shot any film. We weren’t prepared for how exponentially the process leaped forward each year. I think when I started, the classes were only eight weeks long. Within seven years, that eight weeks turned into over a year before you could become a paramedic. [The show] turned out to be grueling, but, like you said, gratifying and satisfying.
You said that you and Kevin were just along for the ride, but your job as an actor was to sell it – to make it realistic and intriguing, to compel people to watch. You and all of the cast did that. It was believable and dramatic and that’s what drew the viewers in.
I can’t take a lot of credit for that, because that was Bob Cinader, the executive producer and creator of the show. Everybody thinks it was Jack Webb; he owned the show, but he didn’t create it and he didn’t write anything. Bob Cinader said to everybody right from the very beginning – Kevin and I were just kids, so he wasn’t really talking to us – but he was saying to the writers, “I want this to be as realistic as we can get away with.” What I mean by ‘get away with’ is that NBC – actually, all the networks – weren’t all that interested in anything that was real. You know, ‘we’re in the entertainment business.’ It was a constant fight between Jack Webb and Mark VII Productions, which was Jack’s company, and Bob Cinader, constantly fighting NBC. Bob stuck to his guns and said, “We’re going to do this as authentically as we can.”
Every rescue had to be proved to him that it was a real rescue that really happened someplace. He said, “You don’t even have to have it happen in L.A. or California. It can happen anywhere, in any state; we’ll change it around so it can fit California. But you have to prove to me, show me, where this rescue was in somebody’s log.”
The writers, of course, were terribly upset. They said, “You’re tying our hands. You’re handcuffing us. We can’t write like that.” Then, once they started reading the logs, they looked at one another and said, “We can’t make this stuff up!” I remember at the end of the seven years, two of the writers came up to me at the big wrap party and said it was the easiest job they’d ever had.
So it turned out real life was pretty entertaining. Did you ever have a situation in real life when someone may have been experiencing a medical incident and people looked at you thinking you could intervene?
All the time. All the time.
How did you handle that?
I took what little knowledge I had and helped out until the real paramedics got there.
Is there a particular incident that stands out in your mind?
Gosh, there were so many. I remember once somebody passed out on a plane and I saw the flight attendants rushing towards the back. I looked back and saw somebody laying in the aisle and somebody was over this person. I didn’t really do anything, but this stands out in my head because it’s actually pretty funny. I got up and went back there where a guy was bent over this woman who was laying in the middle of the aisle. I was watching him and I quickly thought, “This guy’s a paramedic. Okay, cool.” I remember squatting down by her feet – he was at her head – and I said to him, “If you need any help, just let me know.”
He looked up and he goes, “No, no, I …” and he stopped, his mouth dropped open, and he just stared at me for a long time. He goes, “Are you kidding me right now?” and I looked at him and said, “Just let me know what you need.” He said, “Can you find out if they have an IV setup?” So I ran up to the flight attendants and they gave me the box and I took it back.
He started the IV and I was holding the bag, and I remember looking back at my wife. She had been asleep and didn’t know any of this was happening. She wakes up and I’m gone, and then there’s this big buzz in the back of the plane, so she was kind of like Kilroy looking over the back of the seat and looking at me. She does sign language, so she signed, “You are not a paramedic!” and I signed back, “No, but I played one on TV!”
What was funny was that I was just coming back from doing a speech, and the guy [who was treating the woman] was in the audience, so he knew immediately. He was freaked out at first – he thought he was dreaming or this was a Candid Camera moment. He didn’t know what was going on. But it turned out she was okay. We landed and they came and took her off the plane.
There were car accidents many times and I would just check them – take their pulse and see if there were any problems – and do what I could until the real guys came up.
Good for you! As I’m sure you know, one of the most important things in an emergency is the ability to stay calm and to keep everyone around you calm. Even if it was just your presence and your composure, I’m sure that had an impact.
There is a lot to be said for how you make people feel; not so much what medicines you deliver. It’s really how you make people feel, because their own bodies will suddenly respond to somebody who acts like they know what they’re doing. Since that was my living – acting like I knew what I was doing – I guess I was pretty successful at it.
(End, Part 1)
Click here to read Part Two
Randolph (Randy) Mantooth has been an advocate of firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, and other public safety personnel since his portrayal of LA County Firefighter/Paramedic John Gage on the '70s NBC television drama Emergency! In personal appearances and keynote addresses, he discusses the inside story of the development of the television series and its impact on the growth of EMS. Randy worked closely with the nation's first certified firefighter/paramedics, who served as technical advisors on the set of Emergency!, and those experiences enable him to bring perspective and insight into the startup and history of pre-hospital emergency treatment. First responders throughout North America have been touched by Randy's uplifting and heartfelt message - one that draws upon his experiences on the show and more than 40 years of close relationships with firefighters, paramedics and EMTs - inspiring them to rededicate their careers to the higher calling of caring for people and protecting their communities. Randy serves as spokesperson for the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) on Health and Safety and as honorary chairman and spokesperson for the non-profit County of Los Angeles Fire Museum Association. He has been honored over the years with numerous awards and recognition.