Friday, June 5, 2009

Mission: Impossible (TV)

Created by
Bruce Geller
Starring Stephen Hill, Barbara Bain, Peter Lupus, Greg Morris, and Special Guest Star Martin Landau
IMDB Entry

Of course you remember Mission: Impossible.  The Impossible Mission Force, led by Dan Briggs, would further US foreign policy by secret undercover spy derring-do.  Briggs would get his message on a tape, and the catchphrase, "Please dispose of this tape in the usual manner" was on everyone's lips.

Stephen Hill, Barbara Bain, and guest star Martin Landau "Dan Briggs?" you ask.  "Who is Dan Briggs?"

And that's what has been forgotten.

Briggs, played by Stephen Hill, was the lead in the first season of the show.  In every episode, you'd see him choosing his team, going through a bunch of pictures and news clippings as he made his selections.*  Then he'd lay out his plan and have his team execute it.  Briggs was the mastermind who sat on the sidelines and oversaw, occasionally jumping in to make changes as the plans had to adapt.  It was rare for him to take direct action.

Briggs didn't use the same team each time.  Oh, there were the regulars -- Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), Barney Collier (Greg Morris), and Willie Armatage (Peter Lupus) -- but special members of the team would show up from time to time as needed.  You got the impression that Briggs had dozens of agents on call and would select the right person for the job.

And, of course, the one expert who showed up the most (in every episode the first season, as a matter of fact) was Rollin Hand (Martin Landau).

Landau was not part of the original cast, but was hired for a guest shot in the pilot.**  Bruce Geller liked what he saw, so kept hiring him back, but for contractual reasons, he was not considered part of the regular cast.***

The show was a sensation.  It was always well plotted, with some tense and edgy stories (and, of course, a theme song).  The most memorable one for me was "Zubrovnik's Ghost," a mixture of spy story and Twilight Zone episode.

At the end of the first season, though, Hill decided to leave.  One reason was his religion:  He is an orthodox Jew and refused to shoot episodes on the Sabbath.  Geller kept insisting, so Hill walked away from the lead in a smash hit over it.

Geller didn't mind the loss.  He wanted the head of the IMF to be a more conventional action hero who could get in the middle of things, so he hired Peter Graves.

For me, that's when the show started to deteriorate.  I liked Briggs the mastermind more than Jim Phelps the man of action.  Also, the show had already become stylized and even routine.  "This tape will self-destruct" was used in every episode.****  The IMF was the same agents every time.  The list of fictional Eastern European countries (you could tell they were foreign because all the stop signs said "Alt!") grew longer and longer.  What was fresh and new the first season became familiar.

The show was a big success from the beginning, but the Phelps era ran for six seasons.  Since there were so many more episodes, people remember him as the only leader.  I would suspect that syndication tended to leave out the first season.*****

Hill continued to act and finally reached a modicum of familiarity as D.A. Adam Schiff on Law and Order.  Since he only appeared in a couple of scenes each episode, his religious preferences were simple to accommodate.  And I have no doubt there's a Mission:Impossible season one DVD out there.  But Stephen Hill (and Martin Landau) were what made Mission: Impossible into something other than an average spy show with a great theme song.


*Later, it became a series of 8x10 color photos.
**He was married to Barbara Bain, of course.
***I'm not entirely sure if he ever was officially made a cast member.
****It did start the first season, but Briggs also disposed of the tape himself by doing such things as tossing it into a furnace.
*****I remember when our local TV station finally started running the first season episodes.  The tape (which is disposed of in the usual manner) says, "Welcome Back, Dan.  It's been some time," and I agreed with the sentiment.


Zokko said...

Fully agree with everything you've said. Hill was more believable as the head of the I.M.F. than Graves ( a better actor to boot ). I have the Season 1 D.V.D. and never tire of watching it. 'Operation Rogosh' and 'Odds On Evil' are my favourites.

yahonza said...

The whole series can now be seen on Netflix.

Anonymous said...

I agree with everythin and now i watch it on might seem that im only 10 and i love the show!

Sextonblake said...

I like the first season, but I do think that the series reached something of a peak during the second and third seasons. Hill was essentially given the sack after the first season because he caused such problems for the producers. Whilst I don't want to get into the whole 'X is better than Y" argument, I do think that Graves is far better than your assessment of him.

MKBAR said...

Mr. Hill passed away earlier this week. I agree that he was far better than Peter Graves as the boss of the group. I remember that first episode with Wally Cox very well. He was utterly convincing. If he said he was going to kill you, you believed him.

Mr. Hill remains an inspiration. Here is a man who gave up fame and fortune because his faith was more important to him than his career. There are few, if any, who would do the same.