Mission: Impossible’s 45th anniversary: a series disavowed

Sept. 17 is Mission: Impossible’s 45th anniversary. It comes at an odd time. The fourth movie in 15 years based on the series comes out later this year. But, for fans of the original, that’s not necessarily cause for celebration.

The Bruce Geller-created series, which ran from 1966 to 1973, was about a team, with its core members possessing a variety of skills: master planners, masters of disguise, femme fatales and an electronics whiz among them. When special talents were needed, the Impossible Missions Force could call upon doctors, actors, skilled drivers and the like.

With a group like that, they couldn’t be assigned just anything. In the pilot, IMF leader Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) is given a doozy of a task involving a couple of atomic bombs. He then selects team members to carry out his plan:

In case you’re wondering, the first picture that went to the “discard” pile was none other than Geller, the writer and producer of the pilot. He’d end up winning an Emmy for his script, the only writing credit he’d receive on the series.

M:I wasn’t an easy show to produce. It was expensive by the standards of its day. Initially the brass at Desilu, the studio where M:I was made, accepted that. After Paramount bought Desliu, executives weren’t always so understanding. Also, egos were involved. Writers William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter, among the most prolific scribes of the early seasons, sometimes clashed with Geller, who had the title of executive producer after the pilot. The Woodfield-Balter duo were named producers in the third season but following another Geller fight left the show.

Earlier, during season one, there were other conflicts. Hill, an Orthodox Jew, insisted on leaving the set by sunset on Friday, a complicating factor for a series that required extra filming time. That led to Martin Landau, as disguise ace Rollin Hand, to get more screen time. He initially was to only appear at most occasionally. Hill was replaced for season two by Peter Graves as Phelps and Landau got second billing. Both Graves and Landau were big stars as a result.

Landau, though, ended up leaving after the third season. Landau had never signed a long-term contract. His deals were season by season, and he used that leverage to negotiate pay raises. Before the fourth season began, the cost-conscious regime at Paramount wasn’t as willing to open up the checkbook the way Desliu had. Starting with the fourth season, cast changes were more frequent. Barbara Bain, who won three Emmys on M:I, was also Mrs. Martin Landau and followed her husband out the door (despite having signed a series contract). She let the public know how she felt about it when she picked up her third Emmy for M:I:

By the sixth season, M:I had dropped its spy/espionsage theme plots and the IMF concentrated entirely on taking down “the Syndicate” in part because it was cheaper. Still it ran a full seven seasons and a revival, in which Jim Phelps comes out of retirement, ran for two more starting in 1988.

Yet, in many ways, the Tom Cruise movies that began in 1996 have eclipsed the original show. Those films are, well, all about superman Ethan Hunt (Cruise, of course), who seems to have all the skills while his Greek chorus of agents look on approvingly. The first Cruise movie even made Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) the villain.

It was as if the Secretary really had disadvowed any knowledge of the actions — not to mention the Emmy awards and the memories — of the original IMF. Pretty much the only things to make the jump to the Cruise movies was Lalo Schifrin’s theme music and a “based on the series created by” credit for Geller, who died in 1978 in a crash of a small plane.

Thus, fans of the original show have to content themselves with rewatching the series. All seven seasons are available on DVD. And on Nov. 29, the first season of the 1988 revival becomes available on DVD. And 45 years ago, it began like this:

One Response

  1. Quite odd that you fail to mention what a travesty the Tom Cruise movies are especially with the killing off of Jim Phelps.

    The Tom Cruise movies are Mission: Impossible in name only and should not associated with superior TV series that it butchered (not based) on.

    Overall this article is perhaps one of worst things I have ever read.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: