Conrad Janis, father on 'Mork & Mindy' and much more, dies at 94

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Conrad Janis, father on 'Mork & Mindy' and much more, dies at 94
His role on the hit sitcom was just one of more than 100 film and television credits; he was also a fine jazz trombonist and co-owner of an art gallery.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Conrad Janis, an actor familiar to television viewers as Mindy’s father on the hit sitcom “Mork & Mindy” who was also a skilled jazz musician and a gallerist well known in the New York art world, died on March 1 in Los Angeles. He was 94.

Dean A. Avedon, his business manager, confirmed the death.

Janis, a child of the noted art collectors and gallerists Sidney and Harriet (Grossman) Janis, moved easily between the worlds of high art, jazz and acting, sometimes switching one hat for another in the same evening.

“Conrad Janis Is Glad to Live Three Lives,” the headline on a 1962 Newsday article read. At the time he was starring in the romantic comedy “Sunday in New York” on Broadway and, after the Friday and Saturday night performances, playing trombone with his group, the Tailgate 5, at Central Plaza in Manhattan. (On Sundays he would trek to Brooklyn to play at the club Caton Corner.) When not onstage or on the bandstand, he could often be found at his father’s art gallery.

Sixteen years later he found himself on one of the most popular shows on television when he was cast on “Mork & Mindy,” which premiered in September 1978, as the father of Mindy (Pam Dawber), a Colorado woman who befriends an eccentric alien (Robin Williams). On Sundays during this period, he played in the Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band at the Ginger Man, a club in Beverly Hills, California, whose owners included Carroll O’Connor of “All in the Family.”

The key to juggling three areas of expertise, Janis told Newsday, was keeping his personas separate.

“It just wouldn’t do to tell a knowledgeable art patron that ‘man, I dig Picasso the wildest,’” he said.

Conrad Janis was born on Feb. 11, 1928, in Manhattan. His parents had a successful shirt-making business early in their married life, which gave them the wherewithal to begin collecting art and, in 1948, open the Sidney Janis Gallery, which became, as The New York Times put it in Sidney Janis’ obituary in 1989, “a major pacesetter for the art world in the 1950s and ’60s.”

Harriet Janis also wrote books with jazz historian Rudi Blesh, including “They All Played Ragtime” (1950). That connection led to Conrad’s musical expertise. Blesh’s daughter played trombone in her school’s marching band but lost interest; the spare trombone ended up in Conrad’s hands. He particularly studied the music of influential New Orleans trombonist and bandleader Kid Ory.

“I memorized a lot of what he did,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988.

His acting developed alongside his musicianship. When he was 13, a classmate at the Little Red School House in Manhattan told him that “Junior Miss,” a popular Broadway comedy about a teenage girl, was holding auditions for a road company. He auditioned, got in, and spent two years with the tour, advancing to a leading juvenile role. He started doing radio voice work at the same time.

“I played kids of 14 and old men of 40” on the radio, Janis told The New York Times in a 1945 interview.

He landed a role in the pre-Broadway run of “The Dark of the Moon,” which got him noticed by a Hollywood talent scout. He remained with the play when it went to New York, making his Broadway debut in March 1945, but within a few months he was on the West Coast to make his first film, the comedy “Snafu,” in which he played a teenager who lies about his age to enlist.

It was the first of more than 100 film and television credits. In the movies, he played alongside some famous names: Ronald Reagan and Shirley Temple in the notoriously bad “That Hagan Girl” (1947), Charlton Heston and other prominent stars in “Airport 1975” (1974), Lynn Redgrave in “The Happy Hooker” (1975), George Burns in “Oh God! Book II” (1980).

He was on television from the medium’s earliest days, playing numerous roles in the late 1940s and ’50s, many of them on shows like “Suspense,” “Actor’s Studio” and “The Philco Television Playhouse” that were broadcast live. Some of those roles took advantage of his familiarity with musical instruments.

“All through the ’50s,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1981, “I was in so many TV shows as a young musician on drugs, desperately trying to kick the habit, that I’m sure I helped cement in the public’s mind a relationship between musicians and dope. All they cast me in were shows in which I did or didn’t kick the habit. I was always saying, ‘Hey, man, I just got to have a fix.’”

He continued to play small parts on TV in the 1960s and ’70s before landing his best-known role, Mindy’s father. His character operated a music store, but although “Mork & Mindy” ran for four seasons, he never got a chance to play his trombone on the show, something he regretted.

“The producers wouldn’t go for it,” he told The Albany Democrat-Herald of Oregon in 1990. “We had a really cute script where I got together with my old Dixieland jazz band, but they didn’t think it was funny enough.”

He continued to work in television after “Mork,” with appearances on “St. Elsewhere,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Frasier” and other shows. His later movie appearances included small roles in “Mr. Saturday Night” (1992) and “The Cable Guy” (1996). He sometimes collaborated with his wife, Maria Grimm, including directing two movies she wrote, “The Feminine Touch” (1995) and “Bad Blood” (2012).

Janis’ acting career also included a dozen Broadway credits, among them the Gore Vidal play “A Visit to a Small Planet” in 1957 and a revival of “The Front Page” in 1969.

Throughout his musical and acting adventures, Janis also kept a hand in the art world.

Arne Glimcher, founder and chair of Pace Gallery and a friend of Janis’ for almost 60 years, said Janis worked for his father at the Sidney Janis Gallery and was responsible for certain artists there, including Claes Oldenburg and Tom Wesselmann.

“His knowledge of 20th-century art and modernism was really encyclopedic,” Glimcher said.

When Sidney Janis reached 90, he turned the Janis Gallery over to Conrad and his brother, Carroll, who kept it going until 1999.

Janis’ first marriage, to Vicki Quarles, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Ronda Copland. Grimm, whom he married in 1987, died in September. He is survived by his brother; two children from his first marriage, Christopher and Carin Janis; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Glimcher said that in recent years some of Janis’ old jazz pals would come to his home in Beverly Hills on Thursdays and play. When his wife died, Glimcher said, Janis gave her a jazz funeral, then changed the location of those jam sessions.

“Every Thursday,” Glimcher said, “he took the jazz band to her mausoleum and played there.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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