Q&A: Randolph Mantooth reflects on his legacy as Johnny Gage
Mantooth spoke about bringing paramedics into people’s living rooms for the first time with the show “Emergency!” and what it’s like to be the nation’s most famous paramedic
Updated August 31, 2015
In January 1972, the premiere episode of “Emergency!” aired on NBC. Over the next six years, audiences watched firefighter-paramedics Johnny Gage (played by Randolph Mantooth), Roy DeSoto (played by Kevin Tighe) and the fictional crew of Los Angeles County Fire Department Station 51 deliver babies, teach CPR, treat seizures and rescue people trapped in car wrecks, storm drains and even a man-eating sofa bed.
By bringing paramedics into American living rooms for the first time, the show was more than entertainment. In an era when there was only a handful of EMS programs nationwide, “Emergency!” educated Americans about prehospital medicine, helping to build support for the nascent profession—while inspiring a generation of young EMTs and paramedics.
In 2000, Project 51 was established as a nonprofit organization to promote EMS and the role “Emergency!” played in its development. Organized mainly by the Los Angeles Fire Museum Association, Project 51 promoted a national tour that same year, featuring Mantooth and other contributors to the show, along with the original Squad 51 rescue vehicle, which had been completely refurbished. The tour ended at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with an induction ceremony of the show’s memorabilia into the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of American History.
Mantooth, one of the show’s stars, has remained active in the EMS community, staying up-to-date on advances in the field by going on ride-alongs. In addition to regular acting jobs, he frequently serves as a keynote speaker at fire and EMS events and as honorary chairman of the County of Los Angeles Fire Museum Association. Mantooth spoke with Best Practices about the legacy of the show and what it’s like to be the nation’s most famous “paramedic.”
Why do you think “Emergency!” resonated with audiences?
When the show first started, the executive producer, Bob Cinader, told all the writers they couldn’t make anything up. They had to actually get the rescues out of a fire log. It didn’t have to be Los Angeles—it could be Chicago, New York or somewhere else—but it had to be real.
This infuriated the writers at first. They said, ‘You’re tying our hands.’ But Bob said, ‘That’s the rules. You can change names or change situations, but you can’t make the rescue up.’ Well, the writers started reading the fire logs and they realized this was going to be the easiest job they’d ever had. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Writers were clamoring to get on the show.
Because of that, viewers viscerally began to understand, Hey, this is real. We were portraying events that actually happened.
Bob also didn’t want the show to follow Johnny and Roy home, into their private lives. Today, every character in a TV program has to be an alcoholic, or they beat their wives, and it becomes a soap opera. But Bob said that wasn’t what the show was all about. Emergency! really was trying to explain what a firefighter-paramedic actually does.
How would you sum up the respective personalities of Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto?
It was a perfect mixture. In any team, you always have to have the straight guy, and I was not it. Kevin (Roy) was always the straight guy; I was a loose cannon. The audience would instinctually always look over at Roy when Johnny would do something goofy.
Roy was the backbone; he was the senior guy and he would always say, ‘Johnny, you’re out of your mind.’ Without Kevin, my role wouldn’t have lasted very long. We would not have gone seven years. To break up the team would have been a disaster for the show. Universal tried to do it: They felt I could do the show by myself because I was getting the fan mail. But I couldn’t do it without Roy. They weren’t watching because of me; they were watching because of us, and I knew that.
Speaking of Roy, are you still in touch with Kevin Tighe?
He’s my best friend, and I talk to him once a week. “Emergency!” never worked out for him [in terms of promoting him] as an actor. He couldn’t get a job for two years after the show. He had to go out and reinvent himself, so he became a villain in shows, and a damn good one. If there’s a role for a very bad guy, they call Kevin. He played John Locke’s father in Lost, a smirking SOB if there ever was one. But Kevin couldn’t be more opposite. He’s the sweetest, most gentle guy in the world.
Have you ever considered a cast reunion?
There was one in 1998 that was organized by the fans, and it was a lot of fun. But Kevin doesn’t really go to these things. I had to do a lot of talking to get him to that first one.
It wouldn’t work if the fans wanted to do it again today—Julie London, who played nurse Dixie McCall, has passed. So has Bobby Troup, who played Dr. Joe Early. I’m not all that anxious to see a lot of old people sitting around saying, ‘Remember the day …’ Nobody wants to see Johnny and Roy in their 60’s.
“What I’d say to today’s emergency responders is remember why you’re doing what you do, and that’s to help people. And one of the best and easiest and most effective ways to help people is to make a human connection, to let them know you’re going to take really good care of them.” — Randolph Mantooth
Tell us about your experience with Project 51.
It was amazing. We visited 10 cities, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and Orlando, and wound up in D.C. We had an appearance scheduled in Hyattsville, Md., where it was announced we were going to be signing autographs.
We were stunned by the turnout; people came out of the woodwork. More than 5,000 people showed up, and 1,000 stood in line for an autograph. We finally had to shut it down because we had another event that evening. We couldn’t get to everyone. I felt really bad that we disappointed people who had come with their kids and sat in the sun for this. Now whenever I go on speaking tours, I will sit there until the cows come home to make sure everyone has an autograph.
What would you like to say to today’s emergency responders?
I’d like them to remember why they are doing what they do. The EMTs and paramedics of today have so much lifesaving equipment, it just boggles my mind. You almost have to be a rocket scientist to know what it all means.
Sometimes, when I’m on a ride-along, I get the sense that they have such regard for their machines that I don’t see that personal touch, or I see it less and less, and the patient is quickly becoming a second thought. I’ve watched people look up at firefighters and paramedics and they are scared to death. Many have never been in this place before. A lot don’t know if they’re going to live or die. And all they see is people reading their machines. I’m not saying that shouldn’t be done, but I’ve personally seen one touch of the hand, eye contact and a smile—‘Hey, buddy, you’re going to be OK; you’re not going to die on my watch’—I’ve watched people instantly brighten up. They are no longer so frightened.
So what I’d say to today’s emergency responders is, Remember why you’re doing what you do, and that’s to help people. And one of the best and easiest and most effective ways to help people is to make a human connection, to let them know you’re going to take really good care of them.
Your character on “Emergency!” was named after the late Jim Page, who then was a Los Angeles battalion chief who served as the show’s technical adviser. What did Jim mean to the show?
Jim was the heart and soul of the show. We called him the father of the paramedic program here in L.A. He was always pushing this idea to a group of old-fashioned firefighters who wanted nothing to do with a paramedic program, and definitely not one that was part of the fire department.
There was such resentment from the fire department in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Their mantra was, ‘We fight fires. We don’t deliver babies.’ But Jim knew this was the future.
Jim’s involvement with “Emergency!” was looked on with disdain by his bosses. So when Jack Webb, whose production company owned the show, said he was going to name one of the characters after him, Jim ran down to the office and said, ‘Oh my God—if you do that, they’re gonna fire me.’ Jack didn’t want that to happen, so he quickly switched the name from Jim Page to John Gage.
Jim was a visionary. The fire department has changed, of course; the old guys retired or died out. Now, for the first time in Los Angeles, they have a county fire chief, Daryl Osby, who started out as a paramedic. Daryl told me he became a firefighter/paramedic because of “Emergency!”
Did Jim Page write any episodes of “Emergency!”?
Jim actually wrote three episodes. One was called ‘Snakebite.’ As it turns out, it’s one of the most iconic of all the shows and certainly the most popular with the fans. Everybody always tells me it was their favorite episode.
What did Jim mean to you personally?
Jim and I didn’t really get along on the show; he was always trying to get me to cut my hair. So when he’d come to the set, I’d run and hide. I became closer to him after the show was off the air.
How was it to have the show inducted into the Smithsonian Museum of American History?
What’s great is that it wasn’t inducted into the entertainment section; it was inducted into the public service section. That was one of the proudest moments of my life. To be with doctors, paramedics and other public servants was an honor I never thought I deserved. I didn’t create the show; I didn’t write it. I just acted in it. I was the luckiest kid in the world. We grabbed the tiger by the tail and hung on.
Many actors end up resenting roles that defined them. Was there a time after the show ended when you didn’t embrace the character and role of Johnny Gage as you do now? If so, what turned you around?
For a few years after the show ended, I just couldn’t get a job unless it was a Johnny Gage type of role. Every role I got, I had to be in a uniform or play the same heroic yet goofy character. I saw this was going to be career-crippling, and I resented that people couldn’t separate me from that role.
In Los Angeles, they pigeonhole you. So I left Los Angeles and went to New York, which has always allowed me to do what I want. Still, people would come up to me and say, ‘I remember you in “Emergency!”’ And I thought, I’ve done other TV shows and movies, but nobody remembers that.
But some time passed, and I thought, What’s the matter with you? You did a show for seven years that changed the face of emergency medicine. You are being remembered for playing Johnny Gage and for saving lives. What are you complaining about? Get over yourself.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable being lauded and celebrated as an actor by EMTs and paramedics, who you’ve often called the real heroes?
I am a little uncomfortable with it. I didn’t do anything; I haven’t done anything. These people save lives; I don’t. When people say, ‘You’re my hero,’ I say, ‘I’m not a hero. You’re the hero.’ And I mean that sincerely.
I hate standing around and having my picture taken. I’m not too fond of autographs. What I like to tell people is, ‘Put your cameras down, your pens down, and let’s just stand around and have a cup of coffee and talk.’ I like to listen to their stories. They always want to hear my stories, but they don’t know that my stories bore me. So I quickly get them over with. I want to hear their stories. When they start talking amongst themselves, then I know they’ve accepted me, and that’s what I enjoy.
What are you up to today?
I’m still acting. I recently finished a play, “Superior Donuts,” at the Purple Rose Theatre Co. in Chelsea, Mich. Then I’m going to Red Lodge, Mont., to speak to the firefighters up there, and from there I’m on to Pennsylvania to speak to paramedics and firefighters there.
—Jenifer Goodwin, associate editor
For more information, visit Mantooth’s web site at RandolphMantooth.com or follow him on Facebook at Facebook.com/RandolphMantooth.