Martin Landau, M:I’s disguise artist, dies

Martin Landau as Rollin Hand in an IMF dossier photo

Martin Landau, who gained fame as Mission: Impossible disguise expert Rollin Hand, has died at 89, the TMZ website said.

Landau died Saturday at the UCLA Medical Center “after a short hospitalization where he suffered unexpected complications,” TMZ said.

Landau enjoyed a long career that began in the early 1950s. It included a number of espionage-related stories, including portraying Leonard, a henchman in the Alfred Hitchcock-directed North by Northwest (1959); a Cold War themed episode of The Twilight Zone; and playing Thrush operative Count Zark in The Bat Cave Affair, a second-season episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

But he was most famous for Mission: Impossible, where he appeared during the show’s first three seasons.

M:I producer Bruce Geller wrote the part of Rollin Hand (originally named Martin Land) in his pilot script especially for Landau. Landau didn’t want to sign a series deal. Geller wanted the actor for the pilot badly enough he proceeded anyway.

It would be a decision that would have a major impact on the series.

Initially, the idea was Rollin would only appear occasionally. However, series star Steven Hill, for religious reasons, insisted on leaving work at sundown on Friday.

Count Zark (Martin Landau) menaces Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) in The Bat Cave Affair

As a result, scripts were revised to de-emphasize Hill’s Dan Briggs and to keep bringing back Rollin. Throughout the first season, Landau was listed as either a guest star or making a “special guest appearance.”

After the first season, Hill was fired, with Peter Graves replacing him as a new Impossible Missions Force mastermind, Jim Phelps. Landau was now joint star with Graves.

However, Landau would only agree to do one season at a time. This gave him enormous leverage in his contract negotiations.

After three seasons, Paramount executives wanted to cap costs on Mission: Impossible. The studio had tough negotiations with Landau.

According to Patrick J. White’s The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier, Paramount offered a small raise (to $7,000 an episode from $6,500 in the third season) while the actor wanted $11,000 per episode for the fourth season and $12,500 for season five.

Meanwhile, according to the book, Peter Graves had a clause in his contract that nobody else on the show could be paid more than he was. A raise for Landau also meant a raise for Graves.

Eventually, Landau departed, replaced by Leonard Nimoy as a new disguise expert, Paris. That led to Barbara Bain, Landau’s real-life spouse, exiting the series as well.

Landau and Bain years later starred in Space: 1999, a syndicated Gerry Anderson science fiction series that ran two seasons. The couple divorced in 1993.

Landau eventually secured three nominations for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, with one win for 1994’s Ed Wood as Bela Lugosi. His turn as Count Zark in The Bat Cave Affair decades earlier (where he spoke with the same Lugosi accent) was a sort of warm up.

Neverthless, Landau retained his association as Rollin Hand. In 2014, the MeTV cable channel produced promos for M:I with Landau urging viewers to “watch me on Me…MeTV,” while it was running the series as part of a Sunday night block of spy shows.

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.

Steven Hill, original M:I star, dies at 94

Cover to the first season MIssion: Impossible DVD set

Cover to the first season MIssion: Impossible DVD set, with Steven Hill, left, as Dan Briggs.

Steven Hill, the first star of Mission: Impossible, has died at 94, according to an obituary in The New York Times.

Hill enjoyed a long acting career, including a 10-year stint on Law And Order as D.A. Adam Schiff.

For fans of the spy genre, Hill’s one season as Dan Briggs, team leader of the Impossible Missions Force, is a huge “what if?”

As noted in The Times’ obituary, Hill did not work late on Fridays (standard operating procedure at the time on most series) in observance of the Jewish sabbath. It’s also discussed in detail in Patrick J. White’s 1991 book on the series.

Mission: Impossible had the longest run, seven seasons, of the 1960s spy shows in the U.S. But Hill would only be around for the first.

The audience knew little of Briggs. In the pilot episode, written by Bruce Geller, we’re told he had been away from the IMF for some period. In another episode, we see Briggs was a friend of a high school principal. Mobsters kidnap the principal’s daughter to try to get leverage on Briggs.

The IMF leader could be quietly ruthless. For example, there’s the end of the episode Operation: Rogosh. The IMF has pulled a con on an enemy agent, who is driven away by officials of his government. Barney Collier muses (Greg Morris) muses, “I’m sorry we had to let a man like Rogosh live.”

“We didn’t,” Briggs replies.

As time went on, Hill’s Briggs got less screen time. One beneficiary was Martin Landau, whose Rollin Hand character took on more importance. The other was Peter Graves, hired to replace Hill, starting with the second season.

One can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Hill’s Briggs lasted the whole series. Regardless, Hill is being remembered as an excellent actor for other roles.

North by Northwest: Feast of the character actors

Alfred Hitchcock's cameo right after his "directed by" credit in North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo right after his “directed by” credit in North by Northwest

There are plenty of reasons to enjoy 1959’s North by Northwest, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers. Among them: a slick performance by Cary Grant. Eva Marie Saint as the heroine, James Mason as the villain, Martin Landau as the villain’s main assistant, Ernest Lehman’s script, Bernard Herrmann’s music, etc.

The purpose of this post, though, is to point out the wealth of character actors, especially for those familiar with 1960s and 1970s television shows in the U.S. Hitchcock’s 136-minute film provided plenty of parts, albeit small in most cases, for busy character actors.

What follows is a sampling:

Leo G. Carroll (The Professor): Carroll, by this point, was something of a Hitchock regular, having previously appeared in Rebecca, Suspicion and Spellbound. Here’s he appears as “The Professor,” a high-ranking official of U.S. intelligence. It’s a preview of his performances as Alexander Waverly in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Jessie Royce Landis (Roger Thornhill’s mother): Landis was born in 1896, just eight years before Cary Grant. She steals almost every scene she’s in here, especially when she’s skeptical of her son’s wild story of spies. Her career spanned decades.

Edward Platt (Thornhill’s lawyer): At his point, Platt was six years away from his best-known role, The Chief in Get Smart.

Ken Lynch (Chicago policeman): Lynch showed up as gruff cops (he had a recurring role on the 1970s show McCloud as a New York cop) or gruff villains. With 189 acting credits in his IMDB.COM ENTRY, he never lacked for work.

Malcom Atterbury (Man at Bus Stop): The busy charactor actor (155 credits in his IMDB.COM ENTRY) only gets a few lines as he chats with Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill in the middle of nowhere. But Atterbury’s observation about the crop dusting plane sets up a classic sequence, which would be an influence in the Terence Young-directed From Russia With Love.

Lawrence Dobkin (U.S. intelligence official): He’s one of the people who participates in a meeting chaired by The Professor. In the 1970s, he’d double as a director on various series as well as being a character actor (including being the villain in the pilot of The Streets of San Francisco).

Les Tremayne (Auctioneer): Blessed with a smooth, silky voice, Tremayne remained busy for decades, including a part in the 1953 version of War of the Worlds.

Olan Soule (Assistant Auctioneer): Another actor blessed with a smooth voice. He had a slight build, but an enormous voice, ensuring he could get work frequently. His many voice-only roles included playing Batman in cartoons produced by Filmation and Hanna-Barbera.

Alfred Hitchcock (Man at New York Bus Stop): One of Hitchcock’s more prominent cameos, he misses the bus immediately after his “directed by” credit.

And no this is not a comprehensive list (sorry, Edward Binns and Ned Glass, among others).

 

Barbara Bain to get star on Hollywood Walk of Fame

Barbara Bain in Mission: Impossible

Barbara Bain in Mission: Impossible

Barbara Bain, who won three Emmys for her role in Mission: Impossible, will get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2016, ACCORDING TO VARIETY.

Bain, 83, was the not the headline name in the Variety story. Bradley Cooper and Quentin Tarantino were. Also, the list of show business people getting a star also includes, among others, Kurt Russell, Kathy Bates and Michael Keaton.

Still, it’s recognition for Bain, who beat out the likes of Diana Rigg, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell and others when she won three straight acting Emmys while a member of the cast of the original M:I series.

The actress played Cinnamon Carter, sultry femme fatale for the Impossible Missions Force. Because the IMF frequently played con games with its adversaries, Cinnamon got to take on many guises.

Her time on M:I ended abruptly. Her then-husband, Martin Landau, was also a big draw. But Landau never signed a long-term deal for the series. After the parent company of Paramount acquired Desilu, the studio didn’t like how Landau had leverage to negotiate a new deal each season.

Landau was gone going into the fourth season. So was Bain, who was under contract but in the end that didn’t matter. When she won her final Emmy for M:I, she let everyone know how she felt. Still, the actress got to play the part one last time in a 1997 episode of Diagnosis Murder, which featured other stars of 1960s spy shows (including Robert Culp and Robert Vaughn) as guest stars.

UPDATE: Martin Landau already has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, on the north side of the 6800 block of Hollywood Boulevard, according to this PAGE ON THE LOS ANGELES TIMES website. M:I Star Peter Graves ALSO HAS A STAR on the walk of fame on the north side of the 6600 block.

The Twilight Zone’s spy story

John Van Dreelan and Martin Landau in The Jeopardy Room

John Van Dreelen and Martin Landau in The Jeopardy Room

The Twilight Zone, more than a half century after it ended its original run on CBS, remains fondly remembered — an example of how television can be imaginative and thought provoking.

It also, in its final season, deviated from its usual fare of science fiction and fantasy to present a spy story.

The Jeopardy Room, which originally aired April 17, 1964, is essentially a two-man play for television.

On the one side, we have Major Ivan Kuchenko (Martin Landau), a Soviet military officer who served 12 years of hard time in Siberia. He wants to defect to the West. Despite his long imprisonment, he still has information that would be of value to the West.

On the other side, there is Commissar Vassiloff (John Van Dreelen). He has tortured Kuchenko in the past. Moreover, Vassiloff fancies himself as the last of the “imaginative” executioners. Vassiloff has been assigned to kill Kuchenko to make sure he doesn’t reach the West. But Vassiloff wants to do it with style.

In Act I, the two opponents meet in a dingy hotel room Kuchenko is renting. Vassiloff gets the better of him, tricking Kuchenko into drinking drugged wine. Vassiloff drinks first but has developed an immunity to the drug through constant use.

In Act II, Kuchenko awakes in the same room. Vassiloff has planted a fatal booby trap in a common object. Kuchenko has three hours to find it. If the would-be defector tries to get away, he’ll be shot by a thug accompanying Vassiloff.

The booby trap is in the room’s telephone. Kuchenko almost bites but figures it out. Eventually, he manages to get out before Vassioff’s thug can kill him. A bit later, Vassiloff and his flunky are in the room. Vassiloff is determined to get Kuchenko in “the next city.” Just then, the phone rings and Vassiloff’s (not too bright) lackey picks up the receiver, setting off an explosion.

At a telephone booth in an airport we see Kuchenko being told by an operator that the call has been disconnected. “That is all right, operator,” he says. “I have reached them.”

While not the best for what the series had to offer, The Jeopardy Room shows that writer-creator Rod Serling still had plenty in the creative tank despite five years of exhaustive television production on The Twilight Zone. The final season of The Twilight Zone consisted of 36 episodes. On broadcast networks today, 22 or 23 episodes is a full season.

Landau is a sympathetic hero. But Serling and director Richard Donner give Van Dreelen a springboard to chew the scenery. We say this admiringly. It’s a great performance by an old pro.

Van Dreelen would be a villain in a number of 1960s television shows. He makes the most of his part here, even smoking a cigarette in a long cigarette holder. Interestingly, Van Dreelen and Donner would be reunited a few months later, working together in two first-season episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Espionage was not The Twilight Zone’s wheel house. You could argue the ending is a little too pat (you’d think Vassiloff would have the flunky disarm the bomb in the telephone before coming in). Still, this episode was a great change of pace for a classic series.

Trivia: If you see this episode in syndication today (like on the evening of April 23 on MeTV), you’ll see a blurred image on the lower left of the end titles. Originally, there was a pack of cigarettes there because of a sponsor during the show’s run in the 1963-64 season.

Happy Halloween from The HMSS Weblog

count zark

Happy Halloween, everyone. Meanwhile, Illya Kuryakin has to deal with Thrush agent Count Zark. (For details, read the review for The Bat Cave Affair that ran during THE SECOND SEASON of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.)