Gail Fisher: A Career of Firsts
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
Gail Fisher, an Academy alumna of the Class of 1958, forged a professional acting career which spanned decades, with roles on stage and on screen, and earning numerous awards. Her work and dedication to craft would eventually lead to opportunities and recognition that were groundbreaking for a Black actor.
A New Jersey native, Fisher was surrounded by beauty and hairstyling from an early age. In her teenage years, she was heavily involved in both modeling and cheerleading, winning numerous competitions. She eventually landed the lead role in her high school’s senior play, which began her journey into acting.
Her talent was apparent from a young age and she garnered attention from many, including the support of Moss Kendrix, a public relations specialist working for Coca-Cola. After Kendrix urged her to compete in a contest run by Coca-Cola, she was awarded a full scholarship to The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.
At The Academy, Fisher found herself working with numerous theatre professionals. After graduation, she trained with Lee Strasberg and worked for the Repertory Theatre at Lincoln Center with Elia Kazan and Herbert Blau. In 1965, when major theatrical productions often lacked lead roles for actors of color, Blau cast Fisher in a production of Danton’s Death, an epic set in Revolutionary France.
In the early 1960's, Fisher appeared in a commercial for All laundry detergent, which as she would later recall, made her “the first Black female -- no, make that Black [actor], period -- to make a national TV commercial, on camera with lines.” She also made her onscreen debut in the short film The New Girl, which was set in an office with only white employees until the company is forced to integrate.
When she was cast in the series Mannix in 1968, Fisher again made headlines and history. After the show’s first season, poor ratings forced a change in strategy from the creative team: characters were added, the setting moved, and the tone shifted. Fisher auditioned for the part of Peggy Fair, and joining the series made her one of the first Black women to feature prominently on prime time television. In 1969, Fisher received the NAACP Image Award, an honor reserved for the top artists of color throughout the world.
Perhaps most notably, Fisher was the first Black actor to win the Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Television Series, Drama for her role on Mannix. In addition to her Emmy Award for the role, she also received two Golden Globes in 1971 and 1973. Not only did she win twice, she was nominated almost every year that the show aired.
Gail Fisher’s contributions to the craft of acting were impactful in her time and still resonate for artists today. Her accomplishments and her influence will continue to shape the ways in which actors are cast and work throughout the world.