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.
Click here to read Part One
You’re best known for Emergency!, but you guest-starred on a lot of popular shows like Adam 12, Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, and many others. Is there anything that stands out about any of your guest-starring roles, or perhaps one that you were proud to have done?
I didn’t like any of those [laughs]. I don’t really have a lot of memories of those – maybe some of the people I worked with that I would get along with. The show I did called The Seekers [HBO, 1979] is probably my favorite of anything I’ve ever done. I just loved that show.
Why is that your favorite?
I got to play a character that was a young kid and, over the course of the series, he dies as an old man, so I got to play that whole progression of somebody’s life. It was a novel that they adapted into a miniseries, so I got to stay with it for a long time. These other little things that I did – you’re in, you’ve got three days work, and you’re out. It’s not satisfying to do those things.
In Part One of this interview, you mentioned Kevin Tighe, your co-star and paramedic partner on Emergency! I think it’s very gratifying for fans of the show to know that you guys are still friends.
Why is that though? One day, I was doing this thing called Hollywood Squares and the middle square was Alec Baldwin. You shoot all five episodes in one day and you’re constantly having to change into different clothes so it doesn’t look like you wear the same thing for five days. I was walking down the hallway to my dressing room and – I don’t know Alec, I’d never met him before – but the door to his dressing room was open and, as I walked by, I heard him say, “Randy! Randy!” I stopped and looked back and I thought, “Have I met him before?” because his attitude was so familiar with me. He goes, “Can I ask you a personal question?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” He said, “Your partner on the show Emergency! …” and I said, “Kevin, yeah?” and he said, “Are you guys still friends?” I said, “Yeah, he’s my best friend. He was the best man at both my weddings.” And he kind of got choked up and said, “That’s the greatest thing I ever heard.”
And I was thinking, really? Why? First off, why are people surprised by that? And secondly, we worked together for seven years – so of course we’re going to be best friends.
Kevin and I are doing a documentary on paramedics, so I talk to him more now than I really want to [laughs].
People who saw you guys on the show felt that there was a true friendship and affection there. I think fans just hope that it’s real and not something that was done for the show. You do hear about shows where the characters seemed really close, but the actors didn’t get along or hang out away from the set.
Oh, I gotcha. It was pointed out to me that on partner shows like that, sometimes they hate one another. I don’t understand how you can go to work and hate the person you’re working with. I don’t get that. I don’t know how you do that.
Kevin really wanted the show to be over at the end of seven years. He wanted to do other things and I totally got that. But I was perfectly happy playing a firefighter/paramedic. I fell in love with the career. I just fell in love with everything about firefighters and paramedics. I could have stayed on for however long, but Kevin really wanted to move on and his contract was up. Mine was up, too, and they approached me and said, “We want the show to go on and we’re going to have it just be you,” and I said, “No, no. He’s my partner. No, I don’t want to do it by myself.”
I think that was the right call.
It was the right call. That would’ve just screwed it up. It was two partners. It wouldn’t have been the same show.
Tell me more about the documentary you and Kevin are working on.
The only thing Kevin and I have to do with it is we guide it – that’s all. My sister is the executive producer. She’s done a lot of documentaries and feature films, so she knows a hell of a lot more than we do about it. We have a Board of Advisors from the industry – Ron Stewart, Gary Ludwig, Steve Martin, who used to be the deputy chief for LA County Fire. We have an incredible documentary director, Thomas Morgan.
That sounds like a wonderful project. Do you have a timeline for when it might be finished or when people will be able to see it?
All documentaries take about two years to do and we’re about one year into it.
You mentioned your fondness for the world of public safety and you’ve had an incredibly successful career as a keynote speaker and guest speaker, especially at fire and EMS events. For someone who may not get a chance to see you speak in person, can you give me a sense of what you talk about at those events and what your message is for the audience?
I have different speeches for different things. One that I particularly like is the history of paramedicine. There are paramedics who don’t know what the history is and it always kind of amazes me that you wouldn’t know how it started. That’s kind of what we want to do with the documentary. We want to show how it started, where it is now, and where we think it’s going.
There’s a lot of burnout in our industry, a lot of PTSD and things that everybody is dealing with – not just paramedics, but firefighters and police officers as well. I don’t walk in their shoes 24/7, so I can’t tell them how to solve the problems they face every day. But what I can do is I tell them to try to remember why they’re doing what they’re doing – what motivated them in the very, very beginning – and try to tap into that feeling. It may get some people over the hump. But you can only see so much death and misery and pathos until you just don’t want to do it anymore.
I’m on some EMS message boards and one topic I see being discussed a lot is the conflict between the older generation of paramedics that didn’t have the technology they have today and the younger generation that seems to rely on a lot of technology.
I address that in my speech as well.
What do you say about it?
All that equipment that we use in the field saves lives. It really does. But I still ride out a lot with fire departments and, more and more, I’m seeing the younger generation get so caught up in the technology that the patient gets lost. I see it. The one thing in my course of training was how you make them feel. It’s not about numbers as much. That shouldn’t be the focal point. It’s really – how are you making them feel? They’re not going to remember that you might have used the Jaws of Life to cut them out of the car. They’re not going to remember what kind of medicine you used. But they’ll always remember how you made them feel. I address that pretty strongly in my speeches.
You have a whole wall of technology in front of you and sometimes it gives the care provider a wall of anonymity. They insulate themselves away from the pain that’s there. You leave that patient lost. He’s having the worst day of his life and you’re looking at numbers. Every now and then, you’ve got to look up. You’ve got to look them in the eye and tell them – with all the compassion you have in your heart – that everything’s going to be okay, because I’m here. I’m here to help you. I’m here to save you.
I’m so glad you share that with audiences. It’s an important message. Looking back, if you hadn’t gone into acting or if that career hadn’t worked out, was there another profession you would have pursued?
Well, I certainly wasn’t going to go into construction like my dad. I did it for a whole summer and thought, “I don’t want to do this, that’s for darn sure.” I knew what I wanted right from the very beginning, and that was to be an actor. All I am, really, is a storyteller. I just love telling stories, relating stories. I know I get that from my dad. My dad could keep people totally mesmerized by his stories – and probably half of them weren’t even true – but I would watch him mesmerize people with his downhome stories and I thought that was the greatest thing in the world. I inherited that gene, so I always kind of knew what I wanted.
But now, looking back, I think I would have been a pretty damn good history teacher, because I love history. I either wanted to be a forest ranger or something to do with history. History is filled with these wonderful stories that just fascinate you and captivate you – which goes back to The Seekers, which was a historical novel, and that’s why I loved that show so much. I got to tell a story that very few people really knew about, and I got to work on that show for almost three months telling a great, great story. The Seekers was very instrumental in me fulfilling a dream.
And you are continuing that now with the documentary you’re working on and telling the story and history of EMS.
Yes, correct. We want to educate, but we want to entertain. That’s what Bob Cinader always said about Emergency! We have to entertain – otherwise, who’s going to turn the TV on and watch a boring show? “We have to entertain, but in that entertainment, we’re going to educate.” And we certainly did. When people started doing the precordial thump [after seeing it on the show], we finally had to stop because people were just smacking the crap out of people for no reason – if someone just fainted or something. But people took it quite seriously. We had to be careful what we showed.
You have been incredibly generous with your time today and I just have one more question. What would you like your legacy to be? How would you like to be remembered?
Oh, I don’t know. I never really thought about that. I just hope when the casket is there, they remember my name.
I’m sure they’ll not only remember your name, but your decades of public life and the impact you’ve made on so many people. I wouldn’t discount that.
Just don’t call me Bob [laughs]. When people ask, “How do you want me to introduce you?” I say, “Any way you want. Just don’t call me Bob.”
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.