Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mission Impossible The Early Years

On September 17, 1966 MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE, a brand-new type of television series, made its debut.

Like so many other classic television series, it did not initially find its audience. It took several months before it started to click, but when it did...! It lasted for seven seasons and made stars out of almost all of its players.

For example, Barbara Bain, who was cast as the voluptuous Cinnamon Carter, won three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Actress in a Dramatic Series. At the time, that was unheard of. If you doubt her ability, borrow any of the first three seasons from the library and check her out for yourself. One of the actresses she beat out was Diana Rigg on THE AVENGERS. Long-time readers *know* how much I love Mrs. Emma Peel, so listen when I tell you: Barbara Bain portrayed a different character every week, but still was, at heart, Cinnamon Carter. She was a wonder. By the way, Miss Barbara Bain's birthday was last Thursday, September 13. She is 81 years young.

Besides Barbara Bain, that first season featured electrical genius Barney, played by Greg Morris; strongman Willy, played by Peter Lupus; and the head of the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), played by....Steven Hill? Yes, Peter Graves as Mr. Phelps did not arrive until the second year! Hill, Bain, Morris, and Lupus  were the four "set" agents that were supposed to have  a team built around them. Do you know why there was that whole "who will be on the team?" scene at the beginning of most episodes? It was because originally there was going to be a "guest" spy on every episode! However, due  to Steven Hill's behavior, he was fired before the end of the first year, and the producers, in a pinch, asked Special Guest Star Martin Landau to appear in every episode instead. Landau, who was a close personal friend of M:I creator Bruce Geller, did not want to do series television. (At the time his most famous role was in the Hitchcock classic, NORTH BY NORTHWEST.) Geller asked him to become a regular and he agreed as long as the quality was maintained.

Greg Morris and Peter Lupus were basically "nobodies" who went to an audition and ended up landing life-changing parts. Morris was best-known for a guest-appearance on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" before he landed the part of electronic wizard Barney Collier. Lupus had appeared most famously in MUSCLE BEACH, besides other Italian "Hercules" type movies, when Geller and company chose him. They did most of their earliest work together as the "back-up" team before getting more and more screen time in later years. They were involved from the very beginning until the very end, appearing in the most number of episodes. They, and Peter Graves after season two, came to symbolize the show.Greg Morris' birthday is also in September: he would have been 79 on September 27. Greg Morris passed away in 1996.

So in 1967 Steven Hill was fired and Peter Graves was brought in. These five spies were set and the idea of having "guest" spies slowly faded away. If you are going to watch any of the seasons, I recommend 2nd or 3rd, because the writing is top-knotch, the acting is wonderful, and the stories still seem fresh. The show hit its stride and was getting wonderful ratings. It ws at this time that Bain was nominated and won her three Emmy Awards.

Unfortunately, the studio that created M:I was Desilu. After its heyday during the Fifties (when it was run by Desi and Lucy), it finally went bankrupt in 1968 and was bought out by Paramount. Contracts and budgets were re-evaluated. To make a long story short, at the end of the 1968-69 season, both Martin Landau and Barbara Bain decided to leave. Landau had only signed year-by-year, so he was able to walk away easily. Bain, however, had a long-term contract and fought with Paramount for years afterwards. Landau was replaced by Leonard Nimoy, fresh from another Desilu-created Paramount bought-out series that had just been cancelled. Barbara Bain, however, was not initially replaced because of her contract problems. For the 1969-70 season there would be a rotating female character. For this reason, many fans consider this year the least satisfying. Obviously, any series that lost an actress of Barbara Bain's caliber was in trouble. For a double whammy of losing both her Martin Landau, it could have been insurmountable. Yet, the series marched on.

Here's the opening theme from one of the best Barbara Bain episodes, "The Heir Apparent" from 1968.  

To Be Continued....!
I'll talk about the later years, and eventually I'll get to The Magnificent Seven, as well.

Happy Birthday, Barbara Bain! 

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