Bruce Geller: M:I’s renaissance man

Bruce Geller “cameo” as an IMF operative not selected for a mission by Briggs (Steven Hill).

A sixth Mission: Impossible film is in production. There’s plenty of publicity concerning star-producer Tom Cruise, actor Henry Cavill (who has joined the cast of this installment) and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie.

What you won’t find much is mention without whom none of it would be impossible, M:I creator Bruce Geller.

Geller died almost four decades ago in a crash of a twin-engine aircraft. It was a sudden end for someone who had brought two popular series to the air (M:I and Mannix) that ran a combined 15 years on CBS. He was a renaissance man capable of writing, producing, directing and song writing.

Geller, according to The New York Times account of his death, graduated from Yale in 1952, majoring in psychology, sociology and economics. His father, Abraham Geller, was a judge. However, Geller didn’t pursue a law career. (He did end up portraying his father in a 1975 TV movie, Fear on Trial.)

Instead, Geller became a writer of various television series, including Westerns such as Have Gun-Will Travel, The Westerner and The Rifleman. Along the way, he also wrote the lyrics and book for some plays.

By the mid-1960s, Geller was also a producer at Desilu. His brainchild was M:I, whose pilot involved the theft of atomic bombs from a Caribbean dictator unfriendly to the United States.

The pilot was budget at $440,346 with a 13-day shooting schedule, according to Patrick J. White’s The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier. It came in at $575,744, with 19 days of filming. While series episodes would be more modestly budgeted, it was a preview that M:I was not going to be an easy show to make.

CBS picked up M:I for the 1966-67 season. A year later, the network did the same for Mannix, featuring Mike Connors as a private investigator.

Geller didn’t create the character. Richard Levinson and William Link pitched the concept of a rugged, no-nonsense Joe Mannix coping with the corporate culture of investigative company Intertect.

Geller threw out a Levinson-Link story and wrote his own pilot script. Levinson and Link would be credited as creating the series, with Geller getting a “developed by” credit.

Mannix would be the last Desilu series. During its first season. Lucille Ball sold the company and it would become part of Paramount.

Eventually, that meant trouble for Geller. Paramount wanted to control costs and it eventually barred Geller from the studio lot. He’d continue to be credited as executive producer of both M:I and Mannix but without real input.

The producer moved over to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he made a police drama, Bronk, that only lasted one season on CBS (1975-76). Geller also produced and directed a movie with James Coburn about pickpockets, 1973’s Harry In Your Pocket.

Today, Geller is almost a footnote when it comes to the M:I film series, which began in 1996. He does get a credit (“Based on the Television Series Created by Bruce Geller”). But the films are more of a star vehicle for Tom Cruise, including spectacular stunts Cruise does himself.

There’s no way to know what Geller’s reaction would be. And, because he was only 47 when he died, there’s no way to know what Geller may have accomplished had it not been for the 1978 plane crash.

Regardless, Geller crammed a lot of living into his 47 years. At the end of the video below, you can see him collect his Emmy for the Mission: Impossible pilot script.

Stanley Kallis, M:I and Five-O producer, dies at 88

Hawaii Five-O logo in the main title

Hawaii Five-O logo in the main title

Stanley Kallis, a veteran television producer whose credits included stints on Mission: Impossible and Hawaii Five-O, has died at 88, according to Variety.

Kallis had producing credits going back to the late 1950s, according to his IMDB.com entry.

Kallis joined M:I early in its third season. Producers William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter abruptly departed following clashes with creator-executive producer Bruce Geller. Kallis had joined Paramount as a producer following a job at CBS. Geller hired him to get M:I back on track.

The series was a grind on the producers responsible for day-to-day production. Kallis was no exception. “It was like riding a tiger by the tail,” Kallis told author Patrick J. White for his 1991 book The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier. “The damn thing whacked me.”

Neverthless, Kallis, helped by his new hire, script consultant Paul Playdon, righted the ship. Kallis remained producer into the fourth season. During the time Kallis was producer, M:I had two two part episodes (The Bunker and The Controllers) and the show’s only three-part story (The Falcon).

Kallais handed off the M:I job to Bruce Lansbury, who had previously been producer of The Wild Wild West.

Kallis departed to be supervising producer of Hawaii Five-O’s third season, one of the best for that show. Kallis would oversee the production of three Wo Fat episodes and a pair of two-part stories.

The producer remained busy on other projects for years, including the series Police Story and the mini-series Washington: Behind Closed Doors. He was also a producer on Columbo when the character was revived on ABC in the late 1980s.

Mike Connors, an appreciation

Sample of Mannix season two titles.

Sample of Mannix season two titles.

At the end of the pilot episode of Mannix, the namesake detective is troubled.

His client is elderly mobster Sam Dubrio (Lloyd Nolan), an absolute piece of human trash. Dubrio was the target of an extortion designed to look like a kidnapping. His (not biological) daughter was part of the plot.

Joe Mannix has figured out that Dubrio’s long-suffering and abused wife is part of the plot. As played by Mike Connors, the viewer can see in Mannix’s eyes he wouldn’t mind letting her go.

But Mannix can’t let it go. He gently, but firmly, calls out Mrs. Dubrio (Kim Hunter). Only now does the mobster realize how he’s been played.

It’s a very nice scene. Connors comes across very naturally. It’s a moody conclusion after memorable set pieces, including Mannix dodging a helicopter.

Connors, who died this week at 91, wasn’t a flashy actor. But audiences found him likable and more than just an action star. He made Mannix a popular show, which ran eight seasons on CBS.

The season one DVD set of Mannix has an interview and commentary track with Connors and his first-season co-star, Joseph Campanella. The latter played Lew Wickersham, head of the large private detective agency that employed Mannix.

The first season had an undercurrent of the individualist detective coping with the bureaucratic detective agency and its rules.

Campanella told Connors in the DVD extras that the star of a series sets the tone and on Mannix it was a relaxed one. He gave Connors all the credit.

Starting with the second season, Mannix was off on his own. According to Campanella, executive producer Bruce Geller told him that the audience’s interest was on Connors’ Mannix, (Campanella would return in a later season as a guest star in a different role.)

Thus, Mannix was now helped primarily by his secretary, Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher), the widow of a police officer. Fisher won an Emmy in the role and was nominated for three others.

Connors was athletic and had played college basketball at UCLA. He was already in his 40s when Mannix began production in 1967. But he was quite convincing. He needed to be. Mannix absorbed untold punishment from hoods (and even an occasional spy).

Connors was so convincing it actually seemed plausible in 1997, at the age of 71, he reprised the role of Mannix in an episode of Diagnosis: Murder.

The installment of the Dick Van Dyke crime mystery, written by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin, was a sequel to a 1973 Mannix episode. The original guest stars ( Pernell Roberts, Julie Adams and Beverly Garland) also returned.

Mannix wasn’t necessarily in his 70s like the actor who played him. But it was clearly an older Mannix. He was still as dogged as ever, in this case determined to make good a promise he made in the original 1973 episode. The actor sold the audience on every bit of the story.

Connors, of course, was more than Mannix. His IMDB.COM entry lists more than 100 acting credits between 1952 and 2007.

They include 1966’s Kiss The Girls and Make Them Die, a spy film set in Brazil that bears more than a little resemblance to 1979’s Moonraker. He also had other televisions series, including Tightrope and Today’s FBI.

Still, for many, Connors will also be linked to Mannix. That’s thanks to his characterization of the detective as well as Lalo Schifrin’s theme and the title design, often employing multiple images of Mannix in action.

Mike Connors, likable action star, dies at 91

Mike Connors in a first-season episode of Mannix, an iconic image used in the show's main titles.

Mike Connors in a first-season episode of Mannix, an image used in the show’s main titles.

Mike Connors, who often played rugged but likable heroes, has died at 91, according to an obituary posted by Variety.

Connors was best known as the private eye title character in Mannix (1967-75). But he also participated in the 1960s spy craze as the star of Kiss The Girls and Make Them Die, a 1966 film which had a plot very similar to the 1979 James Bond film Moonraker.

Connors was athletic, having played basketball at the University of California-Los Angeles under legendary coach John Wooden. For a time, he was billed as Touch Connors, a nickname he picked up from his basketball days.

He displayed his athleticism in the Mannix pilot, written by Bruce Geller and directed by Leonard J. Horn.

In the story’s climax, a helicopter piloted by a killer dive bombs Mannix at a California desert golf course. Images from the sequence would be incorporated in the show’s main and end titles.

In the show’s first season, Mannix worked at a large detective agency with a rigid set of rules devised by owner Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella). This was devised to set up a conflict of the individual (Mannix) coping with the system. Wickersham was based on Lew Wasserman, the head of MCA Corp., the then-parent company of Universal Studios.

During that first season, there was a recurring bit where Joe would demonstrate to Intertect just how good he was only to purposely goof up.

In one episode, while on the firing range, he fires bulleyes at the first three targets perfects and then purposely miss the next five. In another, Mannix and other Interect operatives went on a foot race. Mannix would have easily won but decided to go off and enjoy a smoke instead.

That was all thrown out in the show’s second season as Joe struck off on his own, helped only by his secretary Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher).

Mannix absorbed a lot — A LOT — of punishment throughout the show’s eight seasons. As played by Connors, he was both tough and compassionate, always on the side of the underdog.

Prior to Mannix, Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die was an amusing project for Connors. The film included a sequence where agent Kelly (Connors) climbs into the Christ the Redeemer statue, fighting off enemy operatives.

The actor’s career was extensive, with his IMDB.COM entry listing more than 100 credits.

Robert H. Justman: In the nexus of Star Trek, M:I, Superman

robert-h-justman-title-card

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

This month is the 50th anniversary of both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. One man links both. Not to mention The Adventures of Superman.

That man would be Robert H. Justman (1926-2008).

Justman was associate producer for the pilots of Star Trek (specifically, the second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before) and Mission: Impossible.

At the time, Desilu was a sleepy studio. Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were divorced in 1960. Desi was handled creative efforts. Lucy was the no-nonsense head of business affairs. After the divorce, Lucy bought out Desi.

Over time, Desi’s absence had an effect. As older Desilu shows ran their course, the studio wasn’t able to replace them. By the mid-1960s, Desilu mostly rented out its studios to other production companies.

In early 1966, however, Desilu was getting its mojo back. It pitched two expensive series (for their time), Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, to television networks. Both sold.

Robert Justman suddenly was in demand. Both Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and Mission: Impossible creator Bruce Geller wanted Justman to work on their series. Roddenberry won out.

Earlier in his career, Justman worked on a show featuring another major character. He had been an assistant director on The Adventures of Superman, the 1950s series with George Reeves as Superman. He held the same post with The Outer Limits in the early 1960s.

Today, Justman is known mostly for Star Trek. Roddenberry made him part of his team when Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987.

Still, over a long career, Justman worked in a variety of genres, including a Philip Marlowe series and a TV version of The Thin Man. He was producer of Search, a spy-like series on NBC during the 1972-73 season.

M:I’s 50th: ‘Your mission, should you decide to accept it…’

Cover to the first season MIssion: Impossible DVD set

Cover to the first season MIssion: Impossible DVD set

Mission: Impossible, 50 years after its first telecast this month, still resonates with some viewers.

Part of it is Lalo Schifrin’s memorable theme. Producer-star Tom Cruise retained it when he began his M:I movie franchise in 1996. In the most recent installment, 2015’s Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, some of Schifrin’s score from the series was also carried over.

Part of it is that many people still remember the 1966-73 original fondly. In September 2014, the MeTV channel brought M:I back for a year as part of a programming block called “The Spies Who Love ME.”

The channel hired Martin Landau, who played disguise expert Rollin Hand for the show’s first three seasons, to do promos. “Watch me on Mission: Impossible,” Landau said.

Some of the images and catchphrases certainly are still remembered. Among them: the main title with its burning fuse; the team leader (Steven Hill the first season, Peter Graves the final six) being briefed in an unusual manner; and the mysterious voice of the never-seen voice saying, “You mission, should you decide to accept it…”

The original series was a tense place to work.

The show chewed up producers (Joseph Gantman, Stanley Kallis and Bruce Lansbury among them). Those day-to-day producers had the primary task of maintaining a steady supply of elaborate stories. They had a tough act to follow after the pilot where the Impossible Missions Force steals two atomic bombs.

What’s more, Bruce Geller, the creator-executive producer, had a falling out with the talented writing tandem of William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter. Woodfield and Balter had received attention for their intricate tales.

But, in the show’s third season (when they were promoted to producers), Woodfield and Balter soon departed after conflicts with Geller. A few seasons later, Geller himself was barred from the Paramount lot because of his battles with studio executives.

Despite all that (because of all that?), M:I had an impact on television audiences.

When Steven Hill died last month, his obituary in The New York Times, detailed more about his one year on M:I than it did his 10-year stint on Law and Order as stern D.A. Adam Schiff.

The Tom Cruise film series is less team-oriented than the TV show. Most notably, its first installment turned the Jim Phelps character played by Peter Graves in the series into a villain. Regardless, the movie series is still around. The Deadline: Hollywood entertainment news website reported last month that a sixth installment may have hit a temporary snag as details get worked out.

But M:I 6 seems more likely than not. Paramount is struggling right now and needs a hit. Cruise, in great shape at 54, isn’t getting any younger. Both sides have ample incentive to get a deal done.

None of this, of course, would have been possible without Bruce Geller (1930-1978), who managed to make a weekly series where nothing was impossible.

Joseph Gantman: On the ground floor

Cover to the first season MIssion: Impossible DVD set

Cover to the first season MIssion: Impossible DVD set

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

Joseph Gantman in the 1960s found himself on the ground floor of notable television shows.

His primary legacy was as the day-to-day producer for the first two seasons of Mission: Impossible.

Gantman came aboard after the pilot was produced. Series creator Bruce Geller supervised the show, but it was up to Gantman to get things going, including securing a steady stream of scripts that could be filmed. He would end up winning two Emmys for his efforts.

Those two seasons featured some of the show’s best stories, such as Operation: Rogosh (the IMF tricks an “unbreakable” Soviet Bloc operative into thinking it’s three years later so he’ll give up where he’s planted germ cultures that will poison the drinking water supply of Los Angeles).

Gantman was worn down by the time he left the series at the end of its second season. His successors, William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter, who wrote many of the best stories of the first two seasons, bolted after disagreements with Bruce Geller. That was an indication that Gantman’s work wouldn’t be easy to duplicate. M:I was tough on producers generally. Gantman’s tenure was almost a marathon by comparison.

Before Mission, Gantmen worked on the pilot of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with the vague tile of “production assistant,” but his title card in the television version featured his credit in the end titles on the screen by itself. Presumably, that was an indication he was a key contributor of the pilot.

During the 1964-65 season, Gantman was associate producer for 16 of the 32 episodes of the first season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, when that Irwin Allen-produced shows emphasized espionage over monsters.

Later, during the 1968-69 season, he was producer for five episodes of the first season of Hawaii Five-O, including three of the first five telecast by CBS (excluding the pilot, which aired as a TV movie). Five-O’s initial campaign was rough (it was the first series actually filmed in Hawaii) and it chewed up producers.

Gantman isn’t remembered much today. U.N.C.L.E. is remembered, behind the camera, for the efforts of Norman Felton and Sam Rolfe. Voyage is seen as what launched Irwin Allen’s 1960s shows. M:I is recalled for Bruce Geller’s concept. The original Five-O is remembered for creator-executive Leonard Freeman, who guided the show for six of its 12 seasons before his death in early 1974.

Yet, Gantman was a key lieutenant, at one time or another (just one episode in U.N.C.L.E.’s case) on all of them. That’s why TV shows have title cards.