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October 10, 2016

The Indestructible Mission: Impossible at 50

The seventh in our series of golden anniversaries

Herbie J Pilato

Who can forget the pulsating theme music of Mission: Impossible that was played alongside the sparkling visual of the unseen figure striking a match in the opening credits for every episode of the classic 1966-1973 CBS series? 

That figure was show creator Bruce Gellar, whose now legendary series featured a stellar cast, long before Tom Cruise brought the concept to the big screen with the first motion picture Mission in 1996.

The original TV show was initially headlined by actor Steven Hill, who portrayed master-of-disguise Daniel Briggs, and who later found additional fame on NBC’s Law & Order crime-drama (as Adam Schiff from 1990-2000). 

When Hill, who passed away in 2016, left Mission back in 1967, that popular hour of espionage centered on the real-life husband-and-wife team of the future-Oscar-winning Martin Landau and porcelain-skinned beauty and former model Barbara Bain.

Landau, who played Rollin Hand, another master-of-disguise, had original career designs as a cartoonist for the New York Daily News, but his heart belonged to acting. 

Accepted into the prestigious Lee Strasberg Actors Studio from among two thousand applicants (with classmates such as Steve McQueen and James Dean), Landau premiered on Broadway in Middle of the Night in 1957 and made his first major film appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest in 1959, before his next to Impossible big break.

Once on Mission, he was initially credited as a “special guest,” thinking the show might interfere with his motion picture career.  But by the second season he was the star, although still contracted on only an annual basis.

While portraying Rollin who, like Hill’s Briggs, utilized various foreign accents, and subsequent multiple characterizations, Landau was nominated for three consecutive Emmys, and remained with the series until 1969, the same year Star Trek ended its original run.

As fate would have it, Landau was Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s first choice before Leonard Nimoy to play Mr. Spock on that other classic series (which also debuted in 1966), and Nimoy later replaced Landau when he, along with Bain, exited Mission.

Landau and Bain, who married in 1957 and divorced in 1993, returned to weekly television in 1975 on a different kind of mission…to space…on the UK-produced and syndicated sci-fi show Space: 1999 (which aired until 1977). 

He then transferred his talents to the big screen, garnering Academy Award nominations for character-actor roles in movies like Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker (1988) and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).

As the charismatic Cinnamon Carter on Mission, Bain’s slinky style of allure spoke to the ‘60s state of mind and yet ventured beyond that era.  Throaty yet refined, her vocal cords and presence were indeed impossible to deny.  Her theatrical presence and hypnotic appeal were accented by her bewitching steel-gray blue eyes, which proved to be one of her most compelling traits.

As Bain once told a reporter, she became involved with Mission because her Cinnamon role was interconnected with Landau’s Rollin from the onset even though, in the beginning, her character did not yet have a name.  “It was written for Martin and ‘The Girl,’ as she was first called.”

Bain said Geller envisioned Carter as “terribly sexy and terribly smart,” but according to the actress, “that combination was not…exactly running around in Hollywood at the time.  You were either the dumb blonde, or the intellectual nice person that lived next door.”

As she later relayed in the book, Glamour, Gidgets and the Girl Next Door: Television’s Iconic Women from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Carter was a groundbreaking part that was written specifically for her.  “She was a woman doing work with the boys and there wasn’t any separation between us.  Women do stop me and tell me they were named after Cinnamon or that they were inspired to pursue law or medicine or all kinds of work that women didn’t do back then.”  

Those “boys” to which Bain referred included other Mission stars like the award-winning bodybuilder Peter Lupus, who played Willy Armitage, and who had attended Jordan College of Fine Arts, at Butler University in Indianapolis.

Lupus, a former “Mr. Indianapolis” (1954) and “Mr. Indiana” (1960), became a film icon like fellow strongman Steve Reeves in movies such as Muscle Beach Party (1964), Hercules and the Tyrants of Bayblon (1964), Goliath at the Conquest of Damascus (1965), Challenge of the Gladiator (1965), and Giant of the Evil Island (1965). 

Then came Mission: Impossible, which enabled him to move away from “sword and sandal” B-pictures (and the previous stage name of “Rock Stevens”).

Although he had little dialogue in Mission, his strong, silent character-type was featured in 161 episodes.  During the show’s fifth season the producers decreased his screen-time; fans were outraged and, from there, his appearances grew and improved in quality.

On July 19, 2007, one month after his 75th birthday, Lupus broke his own Guinness World Record as the oldest person to bench-press over 300 pounds.  At age 70 he had lifted 76,280 pounds in 27 minutes. He later surpassed this by lifting 77,560 pounds in 24:50.

As he told Muscle Training Illustrated magazine in July 1968, “The studio got quite a bit of fan mail about me, so they have worked to beef up my part. It’s more of a ‘straight’ role now with less emphasis on the pure muscle end of it. I enjoy the image change . . .”

Meanwhile, another actor named Peter was also gaining ground on Mission.

After Steven Hill opted out of the series, Peter Graves (who died in 2010) came aboard as James Phelps, the new leader of the IMF (Impossible Missions Force).

For some time before, stardom had eluded Graves (younger brother to actor James Arness of CBS-TV’s Gunsmoke), despite work in notable film roles like Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953) and Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955).  Although he performed on several episodes of the early TV shows like Fury, Whiplash, and Court Martial, his moment finally arrived when he joined Mission: Impossible in its second season.

Cast changes were par for the Impossible course of the show, as several new female additions materialized following Bain’s departure including: Barbara Anderson (later of Ironside), Lee Meriwether (later on The Time Tunnel and Barnaby Jones), Lynda Day George, and Leslie Ann Warren (most beloved for Hallmark Hall of fame’s second musical TV version of Cinderella from 1965).

Through it all, Graves remained with the spy series until its final year, only to reprise Mr. Phelps (as the character was best known) for ABC later-day re-do of Mission, which aired from 1988 to 1990.

Other appearances between Missions included the 1983 ABC miniseries The Winds of War and its 1988 sequel War and Remembrance, both of which were produced and directed by Dan Curtis (creator of Dark Shadows, another golden anniversary series that debuted in 1966).

From 1994 to 2001, Graves, who died only four days before his 84th birthday, served as the narrative host for A&E’s prestigious Biography docu-series, while his career had taken a comical turn in 1980, when he portrayed Captain Oveur in the blockbuster movie spoof Airplane.  It was a role he almost turned down, thinking it “the worst piece of junk,” but changed his mind after meeting with the movie’s writers David and Jerry Zucker.

The film grossed more than $84 million and Graves’s lines in the parody nearly eclipsed the famous phrase his Jim Phelps was greeted with on Mission: “Good luck, Jim. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.”

In 2011, Graves was interviewed for the PBS series, Pioneers of Television: Crime Dramas, and said:  “I remember the very first Mission I did.  As we conquered the villains, I let the slightest smile just crease one side of my face. The next day Bruce Geller is down on the set saying ‘Don’t editorialize!’”

Fellow Mission man Greg Morris played it even cooler when he was cast in 1966 as electronics expert Barney Collier.  Along with Lupus, and voiceover artist Bob Johnson (who provided the show’s taped-recorded “self-destruct” vocal instructions to Phelps), Morris became one of the only performers to remain with the series throughout its entire run.

Such distinction resulted from the dedication Morris granted to his craft while attending the University of Iowa, where he was active in theater and hosted the late afternoon jazz radio show, Tea-Time on WSUI, the university’s campus (where he also co-produced concerts with a fellow student).

After graduating Iowa U., Morris made his professional stage debut in The Death of Bessie Smith, while one of his earliest and best remembered television roles was that of Mr. Peters on The Dick Van Dyke Show, in the now famous 1963 episode, “That’s My Boy.” 

Here, Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie believes the hospital confused his last name with Morris’ Peters character, and mistakenly switched their babies, both born on the same day.  Upon meeting Mr. Peters, Rob’s realizes how impossible that mistake could have been. 

When Morris as Peters enters the Petrie household, and Rob sees the obvious differences between the two for the first time, the studio audience registered the largest and longest laugh in The Dick Van Dyke Show’s history.

That same year, Morris performed on ABC’s college-geared drama, Channing, starring Jason Evers and Henry Jones. Following the cancellation of Mission: Impossible, he appeared in a few films and TV shows (including The Six Million Dollar Man) before he was cast as Lt. David Nelson during the second season of the TV series Vegas.

After that series ended in 1981, he made various guest TV spots, and returned to his most famous Mission role for ABC’s Impossible re-do (which also featured his real-life son Phil Seinfeld Morris as Grant Collier, Barney’s offspring).

He also performed in two episodes of TV’s What’s Happening! (as Lawrence Nelson, father to Haywood Nelson’s Dwayne character), in three segments of The Jeffersons (in which he semi-reprised his Mission role of an electronics expert, although not as Barney Collier); and throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, he made frequent guest-star appearances on game shows like Password and Password Plus, all before succumbing to brain cancer at only 62 in 1996.

Fortunately, Morris, along with the entire cast of the original Impossible series remains immortal in the hearts of minds of millions of Mission minions.


This material is an edited excerpt from Herbie J Pilato’s new book, Dashing, Daring and Debonair: TV’s Top Male Icons from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, published by Taylor Trade/Rowman & Littlefield, and which is available here.

For more 50th Anniversary stories, click here.

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