Adventure 1966 - 1973
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Mission Impossible was the brainchild of one man - Bruce Geller. A versatile script writer and lyricist and co-executive producer of Rawhide, in 1964 Geller had been toying with a new script idea with the working title Briggs' Squad. He had seen the movie Topkapi which featured a gang of high-class thieves who planned to carry out a daring robbery. This movie, and others he had seen, led him to the idea of having a gang who were in the super league of the criminal fraternity; professionals who meticuously planned their heists using skill and cunning. He knew that such criminals would have no ordinary background and decided to make them ex-secret servicemen. Six of them, in fact. He also soon developed the characters into something more than just criminals. They would be mercenaries instead, using criminal acts to do good for their country.
Geller's idea was that these ex-servicemen were at a loose end having left the military. Having had a history of nothing other than espionage, sabotage, deceit and murder coupled with ingenuity and brute force, they would find it impossible to lead a normal life, especially as they were a state secret. Their military leader, Lieutenant Colonel David Briggs decided that their talents should be pooled into a guerilla outfit for the good of the country. They would work outside of the law and entirely independently of the authorities.
Geller had written some outline scripts and even had actor Martin Landau in mind as one of his squad. He knew that his ideas had the potential for a fine movie. He developed a storyline and presented his script to a few Hollywood studios. Having had no response here, he decided to try television.
There was one problem, though. He knew that television executives would not accept a storyline based on a band of renegades whose main skill was murder and mayhem despite the fact it was for the good of the country. Geller decided to adapt the basis of the story, soften his characters and bring in a female character. He invented the IMF - the Impossible Missions Force - which was to become loosely connected to the CIA in order to give Briggs' Squad some respectability. At this point the project title changed from Briggs' Squad to IMF and soon morphed into Mission Impossible.
The idea was that they were a semi-official outfit while they remained secret and were not caught. If they were caught or unmasked, they would be on their own and left to their own fate. This adaption to the story's background marked the true birth of Mission Impossible.
He decided to turn to Desilu Productions, owned by Lucille Ball who personally read the script. Ball was known to be shrewd and quite prudent when it came to business dealings. When it came the artistic side of things she was far more daring - even cavalier. She liked the idea behind the script and was willing to bankroll Bruce Geller's concept. Some changes needed to be made, though. Desilu wanted a season of 28 episodes. Somehow, Geller had to invent 28 stories and wasn't sure if it was in him. They decided that he was best placed to be the executive producer of the series. This would allow him to employ writers while he kept control of the general theme of the show. Lucille Ball, who headed Desilu Productions (she co-founded it with ex husband Desi Arnaz), soon had her colleagues at CBS hooked in.
Geller called on his fellow producer from Rawhide, Bernard Kowalski to direct the pilot and the pieces began to fall into place. Both men had been so impressed with Steven Hill when he appeared in an episode of Rawhide that they asked him to play the lead role of Dan Briggs (changed from David Briggs in the draft script). Desilu's Joseph D'Agosta was brought in as casting director and worked closely with Geller and Kowalski to bring together the regular actors and to cast the guest stars and other players. The show was to be filmed at Desilu's Los Angeles studios using their regular crew.
The pilot was broadcast on CBS in the fall of 1966 and did well, receiving positive reviews, with inevitable comparisons drawn between it and NBC's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The audience reaction was also favorable. The show was given the green light. Since season one was already in the can, this was a great relief to all concerned.
The opening credits of Mission Impossible were innovative in the way that they weaved some teaser scenes from the show into the famous burning fuse sequence. The action always started with a recording made on tape machine or similar device (voiced by actor Bob Johnson) which carried instructions for the Impossible Mission Force's (IMF) assignment. The message would end with this (or similar) phrase: "As always, should you or any of your IM Force be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This message will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck Dan." This opening message (there were several variations of it) soon caught on with the public and with comedians who often parodied it (and still do). This along with the inventive theme tune to the show (originally meant as backing for a chase scene), composed by Lalo Schifrin, gave the show an iconic and cult status soon after it was first shown.
The pilot episode, taken from Bruce Geller's script, carved out a template for future episodes. Geller also laid down some ground rules to all writers (and there were many writers over the years) about how situations, plots and characters were to be portrayed. Each show would have a basic plot with many strands woven in. There was usually a twist and typically the IMF's plans would go awry, leading to an often unexpected resolution. The show did not major on action or even romance. The script itself, with its intracacies, sub-plots, twists and cliff-hangers, was the major factor.
The missions that the IMF were tasked with varied from preventing an evil dictator from gaining power, defusing a deadly bomb or rescuing a CIA agent or any number of other actions that would make the world a better place. For good measure, they usually were forced to work to a strict time limit.
Dan Briggs (later Jim Phelps), the leader of the IMF, would select the best people for the job in hand. The team usually included regulars such as Cinnamon Carter, who specialized in using her womanly charms to disarm any man, electronics wizard Barney Collier and Rollin Hand who could disguise himself as just about anyone. Briggs/Phelps would then brief the team and often introduce one or more gadgets (in James Bond style) and extra disguises. Despite the mission often not going to plan, the IMF would always complete it just in time. The success of the first season led to a second season - this time produced in color.
In all, 7 seasons were made. Although the show was finally cancelled in 1973, it had left its mark - and legacy: the show was revived briefly in the 1980s and three mission impossible movies were made between 1996 and 2006. Even the phrase Mission Impossible is now well embedded in the English language to describe a difficult task. The show's longevity is in no small part due to the the foresight - perhaps even recklessness - of Lucille Ball who, as in the case of Star Trek and The Untouchables, as just two examples, gave life to such a groundbreaking and legendary tv show.
Who was Who?
Steven Hill, who played the original leader of the IMF, Dan Briggs, had become a devout follower of the Jewish faith in1961. Bruce Geller was so keen for Hill to play the lead role that he agreed to his demand to leave work on Friday evenings in time for the start of the Jewish Sabbath at sunset. Steven Hill was not always an easy actor for directors to cope with. However, his ability as an actor was - and still is - highly regarded. Apart from the fact that he could not work on Fridays and Saturdays he could also be single-minded in how to portray his character. This would often bring him into conflict with the director who, as well as sharing the responsibility of interpreting the writer's intentions, also had to get the show finished on time and on budget. Although some of the Desilu executives were uneasy at Hill's appointment, Lucille Ball recognized Geller's determination and championed his cause. Nobody questioned Hill's superb acting ability and the way he made the most of every scene. However, after the first season had finished production Geller and Hill lost their main supporter when, in late 1966, Lucille Ball sold Desilu to Gulf+Western (the deal actually went through in July 1967). Those that opposed Hill's involvement in the show now had more leverage than before. The show was running way over budget and Hill was seen as one of the factors behind this problem.
In an effort to bring the budget back into line, it was decided to film at weekends with many of the crew working for no extra pay. With his strict observance of the Sabbath, Bruce Geller and his writers were forced to reduce Steven Hill's character's appearances. It was probably this and incidents such as when Steven Hill walked off of the set that made up Geller's mind to yield to the pressure from above and fire him. For the second season Geller replaced not only the actor but also the character. That said, it was a straight swap. Dan Briggs became James Phelps and Steven Hill became Peter Graves.
Other regulars in the cast included Greg Morris who played the electronics wizard Barney Collier and Peter Lupus who played Willy Armitage, the strong man. Both actors stayed with the show for all of its seven years.
Martin Landau played master of disguise Rollin Hand. Landau was an almost permanent guest star in the first season as his role had been padded out to cover Steven Hill's limited appearances. After this he was contracted as a regular cast member until he left the series in 1969. The new master of disguise was a character called Paris and was played by Leonard Nimoy. Barbara Bain, who was Martin Landau's wife (they met in the same acting school as Bruce Geller), played femme fatale Cinnamon Carter. She was awarded three consecutive Emmy awards for this role in 1967, 1968 and 1969, the only actress to have achieved this.
The show had many writers including Allan Balter who wrote 24 episodes.