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Today we are discussing one of my favorite television shows when I was a child. My sisters and I created drew computers on typing paper and taped them on the wall (computers back in the day were as big as entire rooms) so we had research equipment for our spy activities. We had dozens of friends on our block and a huge park at the end of the street, so we had a wide area for our spy territories. Playing Mission Impossible was fun because it was pure action. The show didn't develop the characters very well, which left us plenty of freedom to develop our own spy characters, but I was always the sneakiest and the smartest. Of course, now that I've written this down I'm sure one of my siblings will send me a message to argue this point, therefore, this blog post will self destruct in five seconds...
The cast of Mission Impossible in 1970.
That is one of the most interesting aspects of Mission Impossible. Besides the fact that it was one of television's first action series, it had barely any character development and was a bit slim on the dialogue, as well. It was pure action. Perhaps the violence (low key by contemporary standards) and occasional exposure of cleavage was a bit much for children, but the action was fun, fun, fun!
Great Characters Considering There was Little Character Development!
Mission Impossible was an hour-long adventure/spy television show that aired from September 17, 1966 to September 8, 1973, so it had a fairly long run as far as television shows in the 1960s is concerned in spite of the fact that it came in on the tail end of the spy/adventure television craze (according to some views, but I believe there will always be a market for these shows).
The interesting thing about the action on this show is that the focus on action over characters set it apart from all the other spy/adventure shows of the time, such as Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Wild, Wild West. (Oh yes, I'll get to those eventually! They certainly were favorites, too!) In Mission Impossible, the plots are complicated enough for a two hour film and yet, the characters manage to complete their missions in 48 minutes (subtracting for commercials). This, of course, explains the focus on action and lack of attention to character development.
Barbara Bain who starred as Cinnamon Carter on Mission Impossible, was also married to Martin Landau, who starred as Rollin Hand, the master of disguises on the show.
There are other aspects of this show that were "firsts," and some interesting trivia involved with this show. For instance, this was the first appearance of Martin Landau with his wife, Barbara Bain. Landau plays Rollin Hand, master of disguise for the I.M.F. (Impossible Missions Force) and Barbara Bain plays Cinnamon Carter, the show's femme fatale.
Leonard Nimoy replaced Martin Landau on Mission Impossible in the show's fifth season.
Landau's involvement in Mission Impossible is also a curious classic television bit of trivia intermingled with actor Leonard Nimoy. Landau was offered the role of Dr. Spock on Star Trek at the same time he was offered the role on Mission Impossible. He wisely chose Mission Impossible, which lasted much longer. Five years later, Landau was making more money than the show's star, Peter Graves, and he was replaced on Mission Impossible with...Leonard Nimoy!
Peter Graves as Jim Phelps in Mission Impossible.
Peter Graves starred as Jim Phelps, the leader of I.M.F. Graves is the brother of one of my all-time favorite actors, James Arness, and changed his name so both actors would receive the attention they deserved for their individual talent. (Okay, maybe there was some sibling rivalry there. Who knows?) Graves was a star before he left high school. He was the state champion hurdler and had his own orchestra. However, he had his heart set on becoming the next Gary Cooper. When he left for Hollywood, big brother Jim chased after him and tried to convince him to go home, but Graves was a stubborn young fella! He landed his first film role within a year and made 30 years and three television series in his lifetime.
Then there is Willie Armitage, the I.M.F. muscle man played by Peter Lupus, who was also a former Mr. Indiana and Mr. Hercules--yes, he was well-cast for the part. He was 6'4 and 220 pounds, but he also had a personality that made his character seem human--he was more than a hunk. After Mission Impossible ended, Armitage became an author of health books.
Greg Morris stars as Barney Collier in Mission Impossible.
Greg Morris is another interesting character in this show when you place the show in its cultural perspective. Morris plays Barney Collier, an electronics expert who creates the gadgets and gimmicks. In fact, he was televisions first electronics genius! However, Morris was also a talented and intelligent actor. He was not the "token black man," a phrase often so unfairly used during the 1960s when a black actor was hired on a show. Morris was hired because he was the right man for the part, and the producers made this clear from the start. In promotions and media discussions about the show, Morris was praised for his talent as an actor, and not for the color of his skin.
So, what is I.M.F.?
Good question, if I must say so myself. I.M.F. stands for Impossible Missions Force. Assignments for I.M.F. agents are delivered on audio tapes that self-destruct (love that plot device!) The messages are sent from an unidentified government agent who seems to know Jim Phelps because the messages always ends with, "This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim."
The assignments generally involve saving the life of an unidentified European diplomat. Each member of the team is a specialist of some kind. Barney Collier's expertise is electronics; Rollin Hand is a master of disguise; Willie Armitage hauls the heavy spy equipment (lucky thing all of our equipment when I was a child was drawn on typing paper!); Phelps is the organizer, the leader; and Cinnamon Carter is a fashion model who skillfully leaves the top buttons of her blouse undone.
Barbara Bain and Alf Kjellin in Mission Impossible.
The show used a tremendous amount of fancy gadgets, a fact highlighted in the contemporary film versions starring Tom Cruise. The show also made use of spinning camera shots; snare drum music; and a skilled use of tension that continuously builds to the climax like a well-written novel. In fact, one plot device used often to increase the tension is a ticking clock. Another is dripping water.
They also used a lot of scams, which may have inspired films such as The Sting, which was released the same year the show ended. One of my favorite "stings" was "The Sting," which aired in 1971. In this episode the operators must convince a hit man that he received a heart transplant with a heart that belonged to a priest, then subtly convince him that his personality is changing due to the priest's heart.
The Beginning and the End of Mission Impossible
The creator of Mission Impossible was Bruce Geller who, like supernatural televisions Rod Serling, was considered a Hollywood whiz kid. He sold his first script at 23 and by 35 he wrote, produced, and directed dozens of TV shows, two off-Broadway musicals, and won nearly as many awards as the shows he created. In 1965, Geller wrote a screenplay that was rejected, but he had faith in his idea, and a fascination with action shows. He approached Lucile Ball and Desilu Studios who backed the show, then sold it to CBS. Geller won an Emmy for Dramatic Writing the first year Mission Impossible was on the air.
Peter Graves in Mission Impossible.
So, what was the problem? An exciting show, hot actors, action, action, action--what went wrong? Money, and not from the place you would expect. Not from the star of the show, Peter Graves. In 1965, Martin Landau was a hot commodity with numerous films and television shows on his resume. When he was first offered the role of Rollin Hand he demanded--and received--$4000 per episode for a yearly contract, which gave him the freedom to up the ante if the show took off in ratings. In 1965, Mission Impossible was #11 in the Top 25 and Martin Landau's per episode salary was $11,500, $4500 more than the star of the show, Peter Graves. Surprisingly, CBS believed he was worth the money, Paramount did not.
Martin Landau in Mission Impossible.
They replaced Landau with Leonard Nimoy and the ratings went down, though not by much. Eventually, however, the actors and writers lost interest, believing they were running out of story ideas. Peter Graves felt it was best to leave the show with a good reputation and completed his last mission on September 8, 1973.
Awards, Revival, and Films
Peter Graves and Martin Landau both received Best Actor Golden Globe Awards for the original Mission Impossible and the actors, crew and show received an additional 14 wins and 36 award nominations. Clearly, it was possible with viewers and critics.
In 1988, Mission Impossible was revived with Peter Graves leading a completely different cast. This version lasted until 1990 and won two Prime Time Emmys.
Tom Cruise at a Mission Impossible press conference in 1996. Photo by Hendrike.
In 1996, Tom Cruise revived the Mission Impossible story as the producer of a blockbuster film. He has now produced four films in this series: The 1996 version of Mission Impossible; Mission Impossible II released in 2000; Mission Impossible III released in 2006; and Mission Impossible--Ghost Protocol released in 2011. According to an article on Wikipedia, Tom Cruise revealed in a 2011 interview that he will most likely make a fifth Mission Impossible film soon.
- Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
- Mission Impossible. Creator: Bruce Geller. Perf. Peter Graves, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Greg Morris, Peter Lupis, Leonard Nimoy. Desilu Productions (1966-1968), Paramount Television (1968-1973). Running Time: 50 min.
- Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.