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Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
This Tape Will Self-Destruct In Five Seconds

Why hasn't Paramount released any MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE episodes on DVD yet? Don't they like money?

If you only know MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE through the two Tom Cruise movies, you're probably asking, "Who gives a shit? MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE sucks." And it's true--the movies do suck, and they have nothing to do with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. The first film at least borrowed Lalo Schifrin's famous theme and a few other gimmicks, but pretty much ignored everything that was unique and exciting about the television series. The exception is the bravura sequence in which Cruise dangles upside down in a top-secret computer lab to steal some data. Director Brian DePalma wisely played it without music or dialogue, and it's a wonderful piece of thriller filmmaking. It's too bad he didn't--or couldn't (he reportedly butted heads with his boss, producer Cruise, on several occasions)--do more of it. The sequel, directed by John Woo, is a piece of shit, one of the dullest craptaculars I've seen in a long time. And it has even less to do with the TV series than the first film.

No, if you haven't seen the TV show, you're missing one of the medium's great adventures.

M:I aired on CBS from 1966-1973, a healthy seven-season run. It originally starred Steven Hill as Dan Briggs, the head of the Impossible Missions Force, a government group that engaged in espionage of the highest priority. Their missions were so dangerous that they were warned before each one that if any of them were killed or captured, "the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions."

Hill was an intense, intelligent and extremely skilled stage actor who was a favorite of M:I creator Bruce Geller, though not of CBS. Hill also turned out to be troublesome and difficult, and was dumped after one season. You undoubtedly know him from his long association with LAW & ORDER, where he played curmudgeonly District Attorney Adam Schiff for more than a decade.

Geller replaced Hill with Peter Graves, a rugged, handsome, dependable leading man who had bounced around Hollywood for a decade and a half. Despite a memorable role in Billy Wilder's STALAG 17, he was probably best known as the star of several 1950's science fiction movies, including Roger Corman's memorable IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, Bert I. Gordon's schlocky BEGINNING OF THE END about giant cockroaches, and KILLERS FROM SPACE, directed by Billy's less-talented brother W. Lee Wilder.

Graves became M:I's most prominent icon, so much so that hardly anyone remembers anymore that Hill was ever on the show. He went on to do a memorable role in AIRPLANE and to host A&E's BIOGRAPHY, but it will be MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE leading his obituary when he one day passes on.

Graves played Jim Phelps, the IMF mastermind who thought up each episode's intricate mission. Also starring were Martin Landau, still a busy character actor who won an Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi in ED WOOD, as Rollin Hand, a magician and master of disguise; Landau's wife Barbara Bain, a University of Illinois graduate, as model Cinnamon Carter; Greg Morris as Barney, a brilliant electronics and explosives expert during an era when blacks were still rarely shown as intelligent; and Indianapolis' Peter Lupus as Willy, a strongman.

Each episode found the M:I gang perpetrating an outlandishly complex caper or con job on an unsuspecting mobster, killer or foreign dictator. In the early years, the series mainly concentrated on overseas espionage, and part of the fun was learning what made-up Communist country was the setting each week. The show never had Soviet or Red Chinese or Cuban villains; they were always from a spot on the globe entirely invented by MISSION's writers, with a language to match. It couldn't be English, but it had to be recognizable to American viewers, so you always saw signs that read "gaz" for gasoline or "verbaton" for Do Not Enter or something like that. The series eventually moved away from international missions to battling organized crime in America, which was probably cheaper, since the show shot everything in Southern California. MISSION had the run of the Paramount backlot, which had jungles, castles, cathedrals, prison camps...anyplace an international crime-fighting unit might need to go. It also gave the cast a chance to speak in silly accents. Hearing Peter Lupus speak English with a Czech accent is one of TV's great unsung pleasures.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was, and remains, one of television's best-written shows. The plots were so intricate that they had to be virtually airtight to be believable. They were often outlandish and sometimes relied on a handy deux es machina, but the shows were so slick and polished that you could usually buy whatever craziness the writers dished out.

For example, in "The Photographer", the M:I gang had to retrieve a secret code being transmitted by an American fashion photographer and traitor (Anthony Zerbe) to his Commie bosses from his underground bomb shelter. To do so, Phelps concocted an audacious plan to convince Zerbe that nuclear missiles had bombed the U.S. and that World War III was underway. So the good guys substituted Zerbe's bullets for paintballs, faked their own deaths, fed him faked radio broadcasts, and even built a miniature 360-degree diorama and slipped it around his periscope, so when Zerbe peeked topside, all he saw was burned-out scenery.

In another episode, the M:I group kidnapped gangster William Shatner, gave him "temporary" plastic surgery to make him look 30 years younger, and built a ten-square-block replica of the neighborhood he lived in as a child. It was all to get him to lead them to a hiding place, and the plan was that, when he woke up, he'd be convinced the last 30 years were just a dream. Yeah, it's ridiculous, but you either go with the flow or you don't, and by the time that episode aired, M:I had already done about 150 of them, and viewers were willing to cut them some slack. The most complex episode, "The Mind of Stefan Miklos", was perhaps too complicated, even for the sophisticated MISSION audience. A recent article in the NEW YORK TIMES suggested that today's TV shows and audiences are smarter than they've ever been. Anyone who has ever watched both MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and FEAR FACTOR knows that's complete idiocy.

Landau and Bain left the series after a salary dispute and several Emmy nominations (Bain won three in a row). Their replacement was Leonard Nimoy, who, months earlier, had completed a three-year run as Mr. Spock on STAR TREK just a couple of stages over on the Paramount lot. Nimoy played nimble-fingered makeup expert Paris for a couple of years. Also popping up as regulars for a year or two were Lesley Ann Warren, Lynda Day George, Barbara Anderson and Sam Elliott, mustacheless as a doctor named Doug. The show also managed to attract nearly every major TV actor of the era as guest stars, including Robert Conrad, Pernell Roberts, William Shatner, Robert Reed, Joan Collins, Arthur Hill, Edward Asner, Darren McGavin, Martin Sheen and so many others. Hell, I know Monte Markham must have been on at least once.

It's amazing that M:I lasted as long as it did, even though the ratings were very high. It was a very expensive show to do, since so much of it was set outdoors and in different locations. There was only one permanent set--Phelps' apartment, where Jim laid out the mission each week. It was also heavily quoted, parodied and paid homage to everywhere from GET SMART to MAD magazine. The opening tape scenes, where Graves received his mission in spoken-word form each week, spawned such catchphrases as "Your mission, should you choose to accept it..." and "This recording will self-destruct in ten seconds." Even those who never saw M:I will likely recognize these lines.

In addition to its actors, the individual most closely identified with M:I must be Lalo Schifrin, the Argentine-born jazz composer who wrote the opening theme, one of TV's most memorable. Penned in a wonky 5/4 time signature, it was intended by Schifrin to be part of the pilot's underscore, but Geller loved it so much that he made it the series' theme. Again, even those who don't know where the music is from certainly recognize the piece when they hear it. It kicks off each episode with a feeling of urgency and excitement in a way that today's TV dramas, which typically flash dozens of names over scenes instead of using a title sequence.

The bad news is that Cruise is hard at work on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, a sequel that absolutely nobody wants to see. Ask yourself this: have you ever heard anybody say, "Those MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies really kick ass"?

The good news, potentially, is that Paramount will use the tie-in opportunity as a reason to release the M:I TV show on DVD. Chances are they'll skip the Graves-less first season and begin with Season Two. I can live with that, as long as I can start building a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE DVD collection as soon as possible.

Posted by Marty at 11:27 PM CDT
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