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.

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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.

THR analyzes the appeal of Tom Cruise’s M:I series

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation's teaser poster

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation’s teaser poster

The Hollywood Reporter has published an article examining why Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible film series remains popular.

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, the newest film in the series, is due for release on July 31. It’s the fifth entry in 19 years. Here’s an excerpt from The Hollywood Reporter story about the M:I series differs from other film franchises.

The Mission: Impossibles are almost a stealth series; they’re released some distance apart (Mission: Impossible II followed four years after the first, with the third six years after that; Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol arrived five years later, making this summer’s Rogue Nation seem almost rushed with just a four year window between movies), and lack the tight self-referential nature of modern genre franchises. You really can go into each movie entirely fresh and learn all there is to know within a matter of minutes. (Mostly because all you really need to know is “Tom Cruise plays an unstoppable super spy.”)

The initial M:I film in 1996 included Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), the lead character played by Peter Graves for six of the seven seasons of the 1966-73 series. But that movie turned Phelps into a villain, with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt vanquishing Phelps.

2011’s Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, directed by Brad Bird, actually dug into the original show for some major sequences (albeit bigger and better versions for the screen).

Paramount, the studio that releases Cruise’s M:I movies, originally scheduled the new film for Christmas but moved it up to the summer. Studios generally don’t move up movies on the schedule if they don’t believe in their prospects. We’ll soon see whether star-producer Cruise still has his golden touch.

The rise of the ‘origin’ storyline

Daniel Craig and Jeffrey Wright in Casino Royale

Daniel Craig and Jeffrey Wright in Casino Royale

Fifty, 60 years ago, with popular entertainment, you didn’t get much of an “origin” story. You usually got more-or-less fully formed heroes. A few examples:

Dr. No: James Bond is an established 00-agent and has used a Baretta for 10 years. Sean Connery was 31 when production started. If Bond is close to the actor’s age, that means he’s done intelligence work since his early 20s.

Napoleon Solo on TV: fully formed

Napoleon Solo on TV: fully formed

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: During the first season (1964-65), Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) has worked for U.N.C.L.E. for at least seven years (this is disclosed in two separate episodes). A fourth-season episode establishes that Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) graduated from U.N.C.L.E.’s “survival school” in 1956 and Solo two years before that.

Batman: While played for laughs, the Adam West version of Batman has been operating for an undisclosed amount of time when the first episode airs in January 1966. In the pilot, it’s established he has encountered the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) before. There’s a passing reference to how Bruce Wayne’s parents were “murdered by dastardly criminals” but that’s about it.

The FBI: When we first meet Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) in 1965, he’s established as the “top trouble shooter for the bureau” and is old enough to have a daughter in college. We’re told he’s a widower and his wife took “a bullet meant for me.” (The daughter would soon be dropped and go into television character limbo.) Still, we don’t see Young Lewis Erskine rising through the ranks of the bureau.

Get Smart: Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) was a top agent for CONTROL despite his quirks. There was no attempt to explain Max. He just was. A 2008 movie version gave Max a back story where he had once been fat.

I Spy: Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) have been partners for awhile, using a cover of a tennis bum and his trainer.

Mission: Impossible: We weren’t told much about either Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) or Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), the two team leaders of the Impossible Missions Force. A fifth-season episode was set in Phelps home town. Some episodes introduced friends of Briggs and Phelps. But not much more than that.

Mannix: We first meet Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) when he’s the top operative of private investigations firm Intertect. After Joe goes off on his own in season two, we meet some of Joe’s Korean War buddies (many of whom seem to try to kill him) and we eventually meet Mannix’s father, a California farmer. But none of this is told at the start.

Hawaii Five-O: Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) is the established head of the Hawaiian state police unit answerable only to “the governor or God and even they have trouble.” When the series was rebooted in 2010, we got an “origin” story showing McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin) as a military man, the unit being formed, his first meeting with Dan Williams, etc.

And so on and so forth. This century, though, an “origin story” is the way to start.

With the Bond films, the series started over with Casino Royale, marketed as the origin of Bond (Daniel Craig). The novel, while the first Ian Fleming story, wasn’t technically an origin tale. It took place in 1951 (this date is given in the Goldfinger novel) and Bond got the two kills needed for 00-status in World War II.

Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, co-bosses of Eon Productions

Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Nevertheless, audience got an “origin” story. Michael G. Wilson, current co-boss of Eon Productions (along with his half-sister, Barbara Broccoli) wanted to do a Bond “origin” movie as early as 1986 after Roger Moore left the role of Bond. But his stepfather, Eon co-founder Albert R. Broccoli, vetoed the idea. With The Living Daylights in 1987, the audience got a younger, but still established, Bond (Timothy Dalton). In the 21st century, Wilson finally got his origin tale.

Some of this may be due to the rise of movies based on comic book movies. There are had been Superman serials and television series, but 1978’s Superman: The Motion Picture was the first A-movie project. It told the story of Kal-El from the start and was a big hit.

The 1989 Batman movie began with a hero (Michael Keaton) still in the early stages of his career, with the “origin” elements mentioned later. The Christopher Nolan-directed Batman Begins in 2005 started all over, again presenting an “origin” story. Marvel, which began making movies after licensing characters, scored a big hit with 2008’s Iron Man, another “origin” tale. Spider-Man’s origin has been told *twice* in 2002 and 2012 films from Sony Pictures.

Coming up in August, we’ll be getting a long-awaited movie version of U.N.C.L.E., this time with an origin storyline. In the television series, U.N.C.L.E. had started sometime shortly after World War II. In the movie, set in 1963, U.N.C.L.E. hasn’t started yet and Solo works for the CIA while Kuryakin is a KGB operative.

One supposes if there were a movie version of The FBI (don’t count on it), we’d see Erskine meet the Love of His Life, fall in love, get married, lose her and become the Most Determined Agent in the Bureau. Such is life.

Does M:I 4 make a peace offering to fans of the TV show?

We watched Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (or M:I 4 for short) this week. Maybe it was a coincidence, but it seemed as if the film, starring Tom Cruise and directed by Brad Bird, was maybe, kind of attempting to apologize to fans of the original 1966-1973 Mission: Impossible series.

A bit of background. Some fans of the show strongly objected to Cruise’s first M:I movie in 1996, which turned Jim Phelps (Peter Graves in the show, Jon Voight in the movie) into the story’s bad guy who eventually gets dispatched, leaving Cruise’s Ethan Hunt as Mr. Impossible Missions Force. Also, in the Cruise version of M:I, Ethan Hunt did it all — mastermind, disguise expert, etc., etc. The IMF was more of a Greek chorus cheering Ethan Hunt on than a real team.

Well, with M:I 4, Cruise, Bird and company seemed to make some homages to the show. (WARNING: spoilers follow)

Early in the film, Ethan Hunt and IMF team member Benji (Simon Pegg) have infiltrated the Kremlin. They bring with them a high-tech screen that they can hide behind. The guard down the hall will look at the screen and see everything as they should be. This is remarkably similar to The Falcon, the only three-part story of the original series, which aired in season four. In that story, Phelps hides behind a projection screen so he can free a prisoner. M:I 4’s version has more bells and whistles but this certainly appears to be more or less the same device.

Later, former IMF field agent-turned-analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner) wears a metallic suit under his clothes, dives into a shaft headed toward massive fan blades that keep a massive computer installation cooled. A robot craft controlled by Benji stops Brandt from falling into the blades using magnetic power. Brandt is suspended mere inches from the blades, evoking a moment in Cruise’s first M:I film. But Benji then steers the robot craft (with Brandt still suspended above it) through a series of shafts. Benji can also raise or lower Brandt as needed.

That device is a larger, more elaborate version of a device Barney Collier (Greg Morris) rigged up in a two-part episode called The Bunker that ran in the third season of the television series. In that show, Barney had a small, radio-controlled saucer that could navigate through ventilator shafts as part of a typically complicated IMF plan. The saucer had to descend and rise as it traveled through the shafts. The device didn’t really work and in some shots you could see the wires holding it up. MI:4, thanks to 21st Century special effects, is more elaborate.

Finally, after the mission has been completed successfully, Ethan Hunt is listening to an audio recording related to his next assignment (should he decide to accept it). It turns out a terrorist group calling itself “The Syndicate” is making trouble. The Syndicate was used in the M:I television series, and other 1960s and ’70s shows, instead of the word Mafia. Syndicate bosses of that time also tended to have Anglicized names.

M:I always had at least some episodes featuring The Syndicate as villains and opted for Syndicate story lines pretty much exclusively in the sixth and seventh season as an economy move (no need to make up signs for fictional European countries, for example).

But the biggest homage to the TV show comes in the film when Ethan Hunt attempts to complete the mission by himself and can’t. He actually needs a team and for team members to blend their talents.

As we said, all of this may be coincidence. But all of the above elements comprise an awful lot of coincidence.

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: