Facing His Toughest Assignment
But if Morris's electronic wizardry was merely illusion, the personal traumas he has suffered since Mission left the air are distressingly real. Since 1973 he has survived a serious car accident, battled lung cancer and struggled with alcoholism. Most recently he waged war against a malignant brain tumor. After a successful operation to remove the tumor last fall and six weeks of radiation therapy, Morris now says, "I have a clean bill of health."
A jovial, buoyant man who was known as the class clown on the Mission set, Morris, 58, has borne his burdens gracefully. "He's been extremely positive," says wife Lee, 57, who works as a radio station receptionist. "I told him he has nine lives."
It was Oct. 21, 1991, when Morris, who had seemed in good health days before, collapsed in a bathroom of his comfortable four-bedroom home in Las Vegas. At the hospital, tests revealed a tumor in the front of his brain. In a matter of hours, his head became swollen, and he began to lose muscle control of his left side. "They had to operate right away or we would have lost him," says Lee.
Although doctors first predicted that Morris would live only eight months, radiation treatments prevented the cancer from recurring; recent tests revealed no sign that the tumor had returned. Says Moms: "The cancer hasn't affected me one iota. I'm playing golf and doing all those good things."
Unfortunately, the role of convalescent is a familiar one. In 1981, Morris, feeling fatigued from a long drive, overturned his BMW on the highway near Las Vegas and suffered serious facial lacerations. "My face was ripped apart," says Morris, who underwent five hours of reconstructive surgery. Then in 1990, the longtime smoker—who still hasn't given up cigarettes—was found to have lung cancer. After surgery to remove a small tumor, he opted not to take the recommended chemotherapy treatment. Just before the cancer resurfaced in his brain last year, Moms—a recovering alcoholic who once drank a quart of vodka a day—briefly hit the bottle after a year of being on the wagon. Now, he says, "I don't know how many chances I've got coming from the man upstairs. But I'm not going to lake a drink and use up that last one."
Morris has been bucking the odds all his life. Born into poverty in Cleveland, he was raised by his mother, Iona, who worked as a maid, and his grandmother Amanda, both of whom he credits with "keeping me out of jail." After graduating from high school in 1952, he served three years in the Army. He met Lee in 1956, while working in a Columbus, Ohio, post office; they married eight months later.
In 1958 they moved to Iowa City, where he enrolled at the University of Iowa and drifted into studying drama. Two years later he moved to Seattle and then Long Beach, Calif., where a talent scout spotted him in a local production of A Raisin in the Sun. He went on to become a B-movie regular and had appeared in TV series, including Ben Casey, when the producers of Mission: Impossible made him one of the first blacks to have a continuing role in a series. "I'm proud I was able to break some barriers," says Morris. "But I didn't think of it in those terms. It just winked out that way."
While he rarely saw his own father, Morris has been a devoted parent to his own brood: actress Iona, 37, who is Fiona Griffin in As the World Turns; Phil, 35, who played his son in the 1988-90 Mission revival series; and Linda. 31, a film production executive. "I just always wanted a daddy," he says, "so I've tried to be the best dad I know how to be."
Professionally, Morris isn't sure what the future holds. He had a successful run from 1979-81 as Lt. Dave Nelson on Vega$ and now hopes to return to television. "We'll see," says Morris. "The craps game between the devil and God is still going on. When they make up their minds which one gets me, then I'm gone. Till then, I've got to do the things I want to do."
KRISTINA JOHNSON in Las Vegas
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