On the Original “Mission: Impossible”

March 18 was the birthday of the late Peter Graves (Peter Aurness, 1926-2010). Here’s something I either didn’t know or forgot — Graves was the brother of Gunsmoke’s James Arness. Like his brother, Graves appeared in plenty of westerns in the 1950s. And like James, who had played the creature in The Thing from Another World, Peter had also done plenty of sci-fi films, including Red Planet Mars (1952), Killers from Space (1954), It Conquered the World (1956), and The Beginning of the End (1957). And like Arness, Peter Graves was an incredibly wooden actor. It must be said that Peter even exceeded James on this score — no mean feat.

Graves’ biggest claim to fame was the television series Mission: Impossible (1966-1973). Devised by Bruce Geller, the series debuted at a time when gimmicky spy shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy and Honey West were all the rage. Another fact I either hadn’t known or had forgotten: during the first season of the show, the IMF (Impossible Missions Force, not International Monetary Fund) team leader was played by Steven Hill — today best remembered as D.A. Adam Schiff on the first ten seasons of the original Law and Order. After one season, Hill was let go, mostly due to his famously rigid adherence to Jewish sabbath law (i.e. the need to be home prior to sundown on Friday night — which can certainly create a work conflict if your episode is not done filming when the shadows grow long!)

Graves replaced Hill and he was the only team leader I ever remember from Mission: Impossible, which I watched mostly in reruns as a kid, although I seem to recall watching some first run episodes in prime time. It was a glamorous, flashy, and stylish show, with its incredible “lit fuse” credit sequence and exciting theme music, and its semi-rotating cast of characters with their special skills (supermodel, magician, master of disguise, electronics genius, bodybuilder!) At the top of each episode, Graves would play a cassette with his instructions: “Good morning, Mr. Phelps….Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is ….” And then the tape would self-destruct. The voice on the tape was provided by Bob Johnson, who had done the voices of many aliens and robots on Outer Limits and Star Trek.

Once he got his instructions, Phelps would assemble his team.  Greg Morris (the electronics expert) and Peter Lupus (the bodybuilder) were the only ones who were there for the entire length of the series. The rest of the line-up changed over time, but included the husband-wife team of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (later of Space: 1999), Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek, Sam Elliott, and Lesley Ann Warren (who replaced Bain), Lynda Day George (who replaced Warren) and Barbara Anderson (from Ironside).

What did they do? They basically just fought bad guys — dictators, terrorists, criminals and so forth, in as cool a manner as possible. The fictional agency they worked for seemed to be an arm of the U.S. government, but even that was left somewhat mysterious and vague. Hey, if you’re having cool adventures, just go with it, I guess!

Graves returned to the show when it was revived for two seasons, from 1988-1990. (Compact disks replaced the cassette tapes!) And the film franchise with Tom Cruise began in 1996, and has by now eclipsed the original series in the public’s memory. Though Graves was still alive, Jon Voight played Phelps in the first film.

Much like his contemporary Leslie Nielsen, Graves playfully punctured his public image by doing Airplane! (1980), which lampooned films like SST: Death Flight (1977), which Graves had earlier been in. Unlike Nielsen, Graves continued to take serious roles in the wake of Airplane! though he also did a lot of self-referential cameos, and the like. His last acting credit was in a kids’ movie called Jack’s Family Adventure (2010).