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- May 20, 1996
- Vol. 45
- No. 20
The Impossible Years
As Tom Cruise Unveils a Movie Version, Tv's Coolest Secret Agents Reflect on Their Post-Mission Lives
Your mission, Jim, should you choose to accept it, is to round up the old Impossible Missions Force—chameleonlike magician Rollin Hand (the apparent inspiration for Cruise's character), electronics wiz Barney Collier, sultry model Cinnamon Carter and laconic strongman Willy Armitage—and keep Cruise's $50 million-plus missile from obliterating our memories of one of America's classiest television hours.
This message will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim!
Good news, Mr. Phelps. The actors who portrayed the famous troupe of Cold War Missionaries are all still available for consultation. Martin Landau, 67, spent the first three seasons of Mission as Rollin Hand. Landau, who at the time of the show was married to costar Barbara Bain, quit in a contract dispute but went on to a flourishing film career highlighted by his Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Bela Lugosi in 1994's Ed Wood. This summer he'll play Geppetto in a live-action version of Pinocchio.
His successor on the show was Leonard Nimoy, 65, who played Paris, a master impersonator, from 1969 to '71. Already famous as Star Trek's Mr. Spock when he took the MI role, Nimoy went on to star in six Trek movies. The actor, married since 1989 to his second wife, actress Susan Bay Nimoy, 53, also directed two of those films as well as 1987's Three Men and a Baby.
Only die-hard fans may recall that the IMF's original leader was not Jim Phelps, however, but Dan Briggs, a soft-spoken, unsmiling operative played by Steven Hill. Now 74, Hill plays cranky Manhattan D.A. Adam Schiff, the last remaining original player on TV's Law & Order. He was the first to depart from MI. "The work got to be mechanical week after week," he explains. (But according to The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier, a 1991 book by Patrick White, the producers decided the actor lacked the star power to carry a series, and his contract was not renewed.)
But what has become of Hill's square-jawed, blond-maned replacement, Peter Graves, and the rest of the IMF team: Greg Morris (Barney), Peter Lupus (Willy), Bain (Cinnamon) and the various actresses who succeeded her? Some have prospered, others have survived bumpy careers, failed marriages and personal tragedies. For all of them—whom you'll catch up with on the following pages—the Mission days remain indelible. "The experience," says Bain, "was sheer gold."
Peter Graves is a grandpa of six? C'est impossible!!
The tape that gave Phelps his mysterious instructions each week usually went up in a puff of smoke. The same fate almost befell Graves in 1967. "In one episode the bad guys placed a bomb in Phelps's car," recalls Graves, 71. "As I went over to have a look, someone accidentally threw the switch, and the car blew up when I was only 15 feet away. A fender went whizzing past my ear."
Graves spent six seasons on MI—and two more on ABC's pale, 1988-90 revival of the series in which the actor, silver-haired yet spry, shepherded a whole new team of younger agents. Between Missions, the native Minnesotan (and younger brother of Gunsmoke's James Arness) spoofed his straight-arrow image in 1980's Airplane! and played Robert Mitchum's romantic rival Palmer Kirby in ABC's 1983 mini-series The Winds of War and its 1988 sequel, War and Remembrance. Since 1989, he has been the host of A&E's Biography series.
Graves lives in Pacific Palisades, Calif., with Joan, 67, his wife of 45 years; the couple have three daughters and six grandchildren. In his spare time, he vacations at their Lake Tahoe retreat (where he boats, skis and noodles on the clarinet). "I wish I knew our secret," he says of their abnormally long Hollywood marriage. "My only advice is: Hang in when things get rough—don't just walk away." Except, of course, when your car is about to explode.
Fans toasted Cinnamon, but Barbara Bain got burned
In 1969, MI's producers played a mischievous trick on Bain. Knowing she was claustrophobic, they built a whole episode around her fear of enclosed spaces: Cinnamon, tortured by the Other Side, is locked up in a series of smaller and smaller rooms. "Fortunately," says Bain, "there were only three walls because of the cameras." Later that year the producers pulled another trick—and this one, she says, was "brutal." They fired her—just hours before she would receive her third Emmy as the show's femme fatale. "I accepted it with sadness in my heart," she says. Executives at Paramount Television, which produced MI, had been locked in a salary dispute with her spouse, Landau. "It spilled over to me," says Bain, now 64, "even though I was perfectly happy on the show."
"They treated her very badly," says Landau. The couple went on to costar in other projects, including Space: 1999, a 1975-77 syndicated sci-fi series made in England. But back in Hollywood, Bain discovered that she had gotten a reputation as "a pain in the ass," she says, the result of false rumors that she had demanded a huge pay hike on MI. "It damaged my career," she says. She found herself marooned in TV movies like 1981's The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island. In 1993 she and Landau divorced (after being separated for the last decade of their 36-year marriage).
Hollywood Hills neighbors, both remain single, on good terms and in close touch with their daughters Susan, 35, a writer and producer, and Juliet, 31, an actress. Bain is still working: She played Claire Danes's grandmother on ABC's My So-Called Life in 1994. But she keeps getting mail from fans of MI (now seen on cable's fX and in some 60 foreign countries). "Japanese men always write very poetic and polite letters," says Bain. "South Americans refer to my ruby-red lips." Her all-time favorite Mission missive? "Dear Barbara Bain [she recites]: I love you, I love you, I love you. I think. Warren, age 14."
Greg Morris has battled the bottle—and the Big C
Morris, now 62, acknowledges he was one of the first black actors in a TV dramatic series. "Was I a role model? Probably," he says. "Did I set out to be one? No." MI executive producer Bruce Geller would later tell author Patrick White that he cast Morris for his acting and athletic ability (he had played basketball while in the Army and majored in drama at the University of Iowa), and not because of his race.
As Barney, Morris repeatedly risked life and limb. Offscreen, too, the Cleveland-born actor has cheated death several times. In 1981, driving alone from L.A. to Las Vegas (where he had settled a year earlier while co-starring with Robert Urich on ABC's Vega$), a fatigued Morris ran his BMW off the road. The car overturned, hurling him through the sun roof. Five hours of plastic surgery restored his lacerated face.
Then, in 1990, Morris, a longtime smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. A small tumor was removed, but he declined chemotherapy. In 1991 doctors discovered a brain tumor and gave him only eight months to live. After surgery, Morris received six weeks of radiation therapy. So far, he says, there's been no recurrence of the disease. "I'm in great health," says Morris—who adds he's trying to kick his half-pack-a-day smoking habit. For the past five years he has been a recovering alcoholic. But Morris, who lives in a Las Vegas apartment, dismisses as "total lies" tabloid reports that said he was homeless and flat broke.
Last July he and his wife, Lee, a TV station receptionist, ended their 38-year marriage. "We had grown apart," he says. "She and I are still the best of friends." Both take pride in their kids: Iona, 40, an actress, Linda, 35, a film production executive, and Phil, 39, an actor, who played Barney's son Grant in the ABC revival of MI and has a recurring role on Seinfeld as Jackie Chiles, a Johnnie Cochran-style lawyer. Every Christmas, Morris phones his old castmates. "They will be my lifelong friends," he says.
A still-brawny Peter Lupus hopes to lift vitamin sales
His costars affectionately nicknamed him Loop, but Lupus, a 6'4", then-250-lb. ex-bodybuilding champ (1954's Mr. Indianapolis), was cast mostly for his brute strength: One scene had him carrying actor Wally Cox in a suitcase. Yet Landau always gave acting pointers to Lupus, who would rehearse his scenes in Landau's dressing room.
Lupus almost got dropped in the fifth season after producer Bruce Lansbury sought to phase him out and bring in a younger actor, Sam Elliott (in his TV series debut as an IMF doctor named Doug). Letters poured in from outraged fans, who persuaded MI to put Loop back in the loop—permanently. Elliott, with little to do, lasted only one season.
Now 63, Lupus and Sharon, his wife of 36 years, share a two-story, five-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills. Their only child, Peter Lupus III, 25, acts in Mexican soap operas. After MI, the elder Lupus turned to comic roles. As Leslie Nielsen's underling on TV's Police Squad, he tried out for the 1988 film spinoff, The Naked Gun. But "O.J. Simpson got my part," he laments.
Currently the spokesman for KareMor International Spray Vitamins, which he touts at conventions as an oral-spray substitute for vitamin pills, Lupus still works out regularly at an L.A. gym, where he bench-presses 325 pounds. He remains tight with Landau, who spent the last four Thanksgivings and Christmases chez Lupus. "Marty and I just bonded," says Lupus. "He's very giving of himself."
A nice fella lands Cinderella Lesley Ann Warren
How dare they replace Cinnamon Carter with Cinderella? That was the negative fan reaction in 1970 when Warren, then 23, who had starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Cinderella on CBS five years earlier, was named Bain's permanent successor (following fill-in stints by Dina Merrill and Lee Meriwether). Even series creator Geller considered Warren miscast as doe-eyed undercover agent Dana Lambert. "We had a big argument," recalls Warren, now 49. "I wanted my freckles to show. He wanted me to look older." After one season, Warren left (and was succeeded by Lynda Day George). She went on to gain raves as James Garner's floozy girlfriend in 1982's Victor/Victoria and star roles in TV movies and miniseries.
Connoisseurs of Hollywood love and marriage may recall Warren as the first wife of hairdresser-turned-mogul Jon Peters. "His personality dominated mine," Warren told PEOPLE in 1982. "I was too terrified to leave the relationship." Their stormy eight-year marriage, which produced a son, Christopher (now 27 and a TV producer), ended in 1975. By then, Peters had moved in with Barbra Streisand. In 1980, Warren embarked on a seven-year relationship with choreographer Jeffrey (Flashdance) Hornaday.
Now she's engaged to Ron Taft, 48, vice president of Electric Entertainment, a film and TV marketing/production company. The couple, who share a home in Sherman Oaks, Calif., will wed in October. Ironically, says the ex-Mrs. Peters, "we met at a beauty salon." Taft was getting a haircut there.
Lynda Day George survives her dark nights as a widow
George says she "nearly died" when her agent called in 1971 with the news that the former model (Dove soap, Chanel No. 5) had been cast as MI seductress Casey, a role she would play for the next two seasons. Husband Christopher George was also a TV star. But during a 1967 chase scene on ABC's Rat Patrol, his jeep flipped over, pinning him underneath. The actor suffered a cardiac contusion, creating scar tissue that never healed. Though he was eventually well enough to return to work, his heart weakened. After MI ended in 1973, George, now 51, put her career on hold to care for him and their children Nicholas and Krisinda. Fortunately, Chris was still collecting residuals from Rat Patrol, and Lynda had saved most of her MI earnings. Time ran out one November night in 1983. "We were talking, cuddling up," she recalls. "He had a heart attack. I started CPR. I asked Chris's mother, who was living with us, to call 911. We rushed him to the hospital." But it was too late.
For the next 2½ years she seldom left their house in the Hancock Park district of L.A. "My favorite place was in the closet," she says. "His closet, where the smells of his clothes were all around me."
But in 1986 friends set her up on a date with Douglas Cronin, an aerospace engineer who had been a friend of the Georges'. They wed five years later and now share a house in Toluca Lake, Calif. Lynda retired from acting in 1975. Son Nicholas, 31, is a design engineer; Krisinda, 24, works for her mom, who has her own line of home safety products—like the Bed Boot, a rubber cushion that keeps you from whacking your shin on the edge of the bed. Sleepwalkers, take note.
Barbara Anderson fulfills her mission: anonymity
MI's last recruit, Anderson first joined the show in the fall of 1972 as agent Mimi Davis while George was on maternity leave with Krisinda. Anderson appeared in seven episodes as the plucky Mimi. "I can't even remember the scripts," Anderson, 52, confesses. "Once I was in prison, and once I played a waitress."
Anderson, a Memphis native, is far better known as Eve Whitfield, Raymond Burr's detective aide on Ironside from 1967 to '71. She quit because, she says, "I wanted to get married." And, 25 years ago, she did—to Donald Burnett, an investment banker turned landscape painter with whom Anderson shares a home in Santa Fe. "I don't think I'm retired," she says of her career. "I say I'm dormant."
MI's invisible man, Bob Johnson, clicked with fans
For 15 years tourists in Hawaii would stop off at the Hotel Molokai gift shop run by Johnson and his second wife, Jo. They bought tanning oil and T-shirts, but mostly, they came to hear Johnson. "Over and over," recalls Jo, 77, "he would say, 'This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.' "
Yep: Johnson, a onetime concert baritone from Portland, Ore., who became a Hollywood voice-over specialist, was the unseen fed who each week gave Jim Phelps his marching orders. Johnson retired in 1976 to Molokai, where he continued to record "assignments" for the 1988-90 MI series. He died in 1993, at age 73, of heart failure. But the Missions continue to play on. And now Cruise's summer thriller could ensure MI's longevity. "We made an exemplary series," says Landau. "I just hope it's a good movie."
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
JEFF SCHNAUFER and SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING in Los Angeles
- Jeff Schnaufer,
- Susan Christian Goulding.
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