Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Happy Birthday, Steven Hill!

Quick pop cultural quiz: you've heard of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, right? Can you name the *first* leader of that illustrious group?

Obviously, if you're reading this you'll be inclined to guess Steven Hill, even if you have no idea who he is! Well you're right. And today we're celebrating Mr. Hill's 91st birthday, which will be January 24. 

Peter Graves as Jim Phelps was not the original master-mind of the "Impossible Missions Force." That honor belongs to Steven Hill as Dan Briggs during the first, 1966-1967, season. In fact, in the original story treatment the show was called "Briggs' Squad." I often wonder what would have eventually happened if it had kept that name.....

Because, as everyone knows, Steven Hill is *not* indelibly linked to MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. He performed wonderfully in several episodes, but in general the tone and dynamic of the first season is very different from those that came later without him. For season two, he was replaced by the more "hands-on" leader, Jim Phelps. If the series had been called "Briggs' Squad," perhaps Peter Graves would have taken over the role instead of being a replacement. Perhaps there would have been a story as to how or why Dan Briggs was gone: was he killed? did he retire? In real life Steven Hill was an Orthodox Jew who insisted on leaving the set every Friday before sundown. He and the producers had agreed to this before he signed his contract, but after a year of delayed and late filming, the producers let him go. Therefore there was no impetus for the producers to write a "good bye" episode for him; he simply left. Martin Landau, who was contractually only a guest star, became the defacto star in all of the later first season episodes. He became a member of the regular cast for season two.
I firmly believe that MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE would not have ended up being what it was without the participation of Steven Hill. For example, several of the earliest episodes with him in the lead are breathtaking. Not to take away anything from Martin Landau or Peter Graves, but I watch these early episodes today and sometimes mourn for what might have been. As it is, Dan Briggs was the first in what would become a long line of unexplained changes.

After leaving MISSION Steven Hill took a sabbatical from acting, returning in the 80s and 90s. I remember seeing him with Barbra Streisand in YENTL, for example. His longest job was as District Attorney Adam Schiff in the drama LAW & ORDER, a part he played from 1990-2000. Unfortunately, I have never seen this show (I was in Japan at the time). I am glad to know that he has met with success, however.

 Happy Birthday, Steven Hill! 

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