Groundbreaking television series are rare in Hollywood. Sure, there are dozens if not hundreds of memorable programs, but the ones that defined their genre, innovated it or became burned into the public psyche are few and far between indeed. Twilight Zone did it, defining dark anthologies for decades to come. So did Star Trek and I Love Lucy, the latter of which not only reinvigorated the situation comedy, but revolutionized the industry with the three-camera process that is still used today. Each in their own way, shows like this changed the television landscape forever and, without them, many subsequent series wouldn’t have had such giant shoulders upon which to stand.
This year, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of one such series, Mission: Impossible, the groundbreaking espionage series that has influenced dozens and dozens of television shows throughout the last five decades and has served as the inspiration (however loosely) for a film series that has become one of Paramount Pictures’ summer tent pole franchises.
It is only fitting, then, that three-time Emmy® award winner Barbara Bain will be honored by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame during this golden anniversary year. After all, it was Bain who defined smart, sexy and capable as Cinnamon Carter in Mission: Impossible, the series that first launched her into the international spotlight. On Thursday, April 28, 2016, Bain, now in her eighties and as vibrant and energetic as people half her age, will be the recipient of the 2,579th star on that famed landmark, and long time friends Edward Asner and Dick Van Dyke will be on hand at the unveiling.
Bain and I have been acquainted for a number of years, seeing each other at social events and conventions, and I was fortunate enough to hire her for the TV series, Likely Suspects, back when I was a casting director. It is only in the last three years — after a group of fans including Rosie Badgett, Rebecca Eisenhuth, Karen Alesi and I launched a crowdfunding campaign to get Bain a spot on the historic landmark — that I have gotten to know her on a more personal level, one beyond my fan-boy admiration. But even in those three years, what I had never done was sit down with her and talk in-depth about her days on Mission: Impossible a show which had always sparked my imagination in my younger years. So, we sat down and did just that.
We agreed to meet at Aventine, an upscale but charmingly rustic Italian restaurant not far from where her star will be installed on the Walk of Fame. When I arrive, she is already at the restaurant as I have come to expect. “I don’t like to keep people waiting or waste their time,” she’d told me once. “So, I’m always try to be early.” And this is true. Every time Team Bain Star (as we who organized the campaign have come to be known) have met with her, we have seldom — if ever — arrived before her.
Stylishly dressed, she is always there first, tucked away in a corner and quietly reading the book that currently holds her fascination. This is another expected trait. Bain reads ravenously and her knowledge on a vast range of subjects–from art, literature, the theatre and current events– is astounding. Today is the same, and when she sees me coming she tucks the book away, stands and holds out her arms with a grace that evokes the golden age of Hollywood. We share hugs, and she asks, “How are you? How is the husband?”
We order drinks (water, no ice, with a squeeze of lime for her, diet coke for me) and chat, discussing families, mutual friends, my day job, the theatre. We could go on and on, but ultimately, our attention turns to the task at hand. “Shall we do this?” I ask. She cocks her head charmingly to the side. “Well, I think we shall.” And so we begin…at the beginning…
Born Mildred Fogel*, Barbara Bain didn’t start out as an actress. She was attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and there she discovered dance, a passion she still explores to this day, taking dance classes several times a week. Ultimately she relocated to New York City, working as a high-fashion model (which would lead to a life-long friendship with fashion icon Rudi Gernreich) as she studied with Martha Graham, the master of modern dance. The performing arts fascinated her, and she began studying in the private class of Lee Strasberg and later won a coveted spot in his legendary Actors Studio.
The most famous of all acting teachers, Strasberg demanded much discipline from his students and deep introspection, facilitating the development of sense-memory, a key component of so-called “method” acting. The training was intensive and, unlike many actors today, Bain knew she shouldn’t rush into going out on auditions. “I knew,” she says, “I needed to be more than prepared before I ventured out into that world.” And wait she did, studying for a year and a half before ever seeking acting work. All that training paid off, as when she did finally dip her toes in, she booked every one of the first three jobs for which she auditioned.
It was the Broadway road tour of Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night that landed her in Los Angeles, where she continued to study, while also working steadily in some of the hottest television series of the day. Her acting classes in Los Angeles would cause her ultimately to meet a man who would go on to create the role that would make Bain an international star.
A Yale graduate, Bruce Geller was a writer who had left behind a rising career in the New York television scene to relocate to Los Angeles. Always intensely interested in all aspects of the performing arts, Geller enrolled in the same class as Bain and quickly formed a close friendship with her and her then-husband, Martin Landau. He became impressed with their work and while working on the hit series Rawhide, Geller began working on a concept for a new television series, “Brigg’s Brigade,” a “cloak and dagger” series centering on leader Dan Briggs and his team of secret government spies. As the series developed, he wrote a character specifically for Landau (who’d by that time had made a bit of a name for himself) and, unbeknownst to Bain, also wrote a role with her in mind.
While it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Cinnamon Carter, Bain had to go through the audition process like anyone else and Geller never said a word to her about creating the role for her. “He couldn’t tell me because I wasn’t a ‘name.’” But behind the scenes, as Bain successfully passed through each round of auditions, Geller was making his case for her. “Bruce was the most obdurate and taciturn man I had ever known,” she remembers fondly. “He held fast with all the powers.”
Geller held fast indeed and Bain found herself with one last approval to be had before she won the role: a meeting with Lucille Ball, head of Desilu, the studio producing the series. “I met her in her bungalow which is now, by the way, the day care center for Paramount employees. Our interview lasted under a minute. She looked me up and down and said, in that deep voice, ‘Looks good to me.’”
Brigg’s Brigade was ultimately renamed Mission: Impossible and debuted on CBS television on September 17, 1966. While not an instant hit, it managed to quickly capture the imagination of an American public firmly in the psychological grip of the cold war that had followed World War II, a scant two decades behind the nation. Mission was one of the most ambitious television series ever created, with an astounding $225,000 per episode price tag, and relying on intricate plots, dark themes, and fantastical elements to create suspense and tension that demanded much of the television viewer.
Likely at least inspired by the real-life Francis Gary Powers U2 Spy swap in 1962 and feature films such as Topkapi and the original Ocean’s Eleven, the series followed the exploits of the Impossible Missions Force, a covert American spy organization led by Dan Briggs (and Jim Phelps starting with season two) and aided by Rollin Hand, a master of disguise, Cinnamon Carter, a former high-fashion model, Barney Collier, an expert in mechanics and electronic, and Willy Armitage, the muscle of the team. Every week, other special agents might also participate, leading to a parade of guest stars unparalleled in television.
Where Mission departed greatly from its presumed influences, however, was in its structure and the darkness of the themes it tackled. Wrapped in a heightened reality verging on fantasy where America’s might was always used for right (after all, such fantastical things certainly couldn’t be happening in the real world), Mission tackled subjects as diverse as slavery, the potential rise of the 4th Reich, psychological manipulation, torture, betrayal, and even government sanctioned regime change (especially tricky given the then still recent assassination of JFK and the conspiracy theories surrounding it). In a lot of ways, these are themes that television today (especially off-network shows) are dealing with very graphically, but it the 1960s this was pushing the envelope.
Since he died so young, Geller is perhaps one of the industry’s least-remembered creators. You have giants like Rod Serling, Gene Roddenberry, Chris Carter, Carl Reiner, James L. Brooks, Steven Bochco who are in the pantheon of great TV creators, but Geller is often overlooked, despite his impact on television being undeniable. Nearly every espionage series (and movie) since Mission has been influenced by his work, and the same can be said about many of the CSI-type shows that are ubiquitous in television today. But Geller was at the forefront.
A flying enthusiast, Bruce Geller died in 1978 when the Cessna he was piloting crashed near Santa Barbara, California. “It’s a touch difficult,” Bain says with sadness when the subject turns to Geller. “I’m still a bit ticked off at him for his weekend flying hobby.” Bain clearly has much fondness for the man who, essentially, put her on the worldwide map. “He was a very serious person; his demeanor, quiet. He spoke in measured tones and, unlike an archetypical Hollywood producer, when he was pleased with something, he was not given to large flamboyant gestures or oversized adjectives of praise. He would quietly say…‘That was nice’ when he liked a take, etc. But he was also obdurate, and he would just as quietly hold his ground with any of the ‘powers’ that wanted him to change anything.”
When it comes to stories tackled in Mission: Impossible, the series tread into some very dicey territory, but because it was wrapped in fantasy and likely because of Geller’s control of the situation, there was surprisingly little interference from those powers that be. “The only push back from Desilu, CBS, or Paramount,” Bain recalls, “was in regard to the length of the shooting schedule.” [Geller had notoriously long shooting schedules for each episode in order to accomplish the feature film quality of each show]. “Oh, and some real concern about the “towel” scene in the pilot and the fishnet stockings and the garters in ‘Illusion.’”
Referencing the pilot and “Illusion,” just two of over 70 episodes in which Bain would appear, one realizes just how much she was given to do in the series. Yes, the show capitalized on her beauty and sex appeal (after all, Cinnamon’s specialty was distraction), but Bain was also given character roles to in almost every episode. There was Cinnamon, the spy, but there was also the diversity of “roles” Cinnamon played in each mission: from a nun to a blind Russian countess, to a Berlin cabaret singer. “It was an actress’ dream! The running character was so glamorous; so much fun and then a character role…so many different chances to really play.”
The character of Cinnamon Carter is just one of the many ways that Mission: Impossible helped break the mold so prevalent in television. The assertive, capable woman who could play with the big boys was just beginning to sneak very quietly into television. Up to that point, women were often relegated to the sidelines, often the housewife or helpless female that needed to be saved by the men around her. Cinnamon was entirely different. She was an equal in every respect, just as capable as the men around her without ever losing her feminine appeal. She was a smart, capable spy first and a woman second. In fact, when star Steven Hill was unavailable for an episode in season one, it was Cinnamon Carter who retrieved the mission tape and led the team. Unheard of, at the time, for a woman to be in charge of a large group of men. “Bruce never spoke to me about it.” She shrugs, matter of factly. “After all, Cinnamon participated fully with the men; so it was assumed that I could handle anything they could.”
I wondered just how much influence Bain had on the development of the character and when I turn the interview in that direction, Bain gently shakes her head and returns to Geller. “There was just something Bruce saw in me and trusted. He had seen my work in an acting class and had told the writers that came in after the first six shows or so, ‘Write anything for her…she can play it.’ It was total heaven for me and I didn’t need to have any overt influence. Bruce encouraged the writers to truly embrace those aspects of the character of Cinnamon and the other characters within the storyline of each episode.”
At that moment, a handsome young man arrives to take our order. He has that deep, masculine resonance to his voice, made all the more appealing by his pronounced European accent. Bain’s eyes light up at the accent. “Where are you from in Italy?” She asks. He answers and Bain continues the conversation…in Italian (a language she learned when living in Italy).
This is another aspect of Bain that has become apparent over the past few years of getting to know her. While she is fine talking about her career, she has always impressed me as someone who is far more interested in learning about those around her, about their backgrounds and jobs and history rather than talking about herself. Many times over the last three years, when Team Bain Star have met with Bain 90% of our conversations have been about the four of us and our respective families, interests and careers. It’s refreshing and not what one expects from a Hollywood star.
After ordering a pizza to share, Bain fills me in on the conversation she had with the waiter, his hometown and what brought him to Los Angeles. She augments it with little stories about his hometown which she had once happened to have visited. “I seem to have gotten us off track, though, haven’t I?” she asks, laughing.
We return to the groundbreaking aspects of Mission: Impossible, and I go into the dark themes of the series. “The Slave” deals with a television taboo at the time and also delves into sex-trafficking, both subjects one would have thought would never have made it to broadcast. Again, Geller, in wrapping it in the fantasy elements of the series’ concepts, managed to get it in there. In another episode – and a stand-out episode for Bain – entitled “The Short-Tailed Spy,” Cinnamon is tasked with seducing Eric Braeden (then billed under his birth name, Hans Gudegast) as part of the mission. But in a turn, it is implied that Cinnamon may not only have really fallen for her target but perhaps even slept with him. Again, a series dealing with this concept today would be much more blatant and matter of fact about it. In the 1960s, this was quite risqué for television and a very risky episode for Cinnamon who “goes off script” with the IMF direction. It was the subtlety with which the plot twist was written and played that allowed it to get past the network censors. “No one complained to my knowledge. Any number of folks, mostly women, probably sent in cheers.”
In two of the series’ darker episodes, Bain gives tour-de-fore performances. In “The Exchange,” a mission goes terribly wrong and Cinnamon is captured. Now, as we all know, if a member of the IM force is caught or killed, the Secretary would disavow all knowledge of their actions. In short, Cinnamon would be abandoned, left to whatever fate. The episode is quite harrowing, with Cinnamon being drugged, tortured and on the edge of giving up information vital to the security of the nation.
In one of the series most popular episodes “Illusion,” Bain’s Cinnamon Carter goes undercover as Mona Berne, a singer ala Marlene Dietrich in a Berlin cabaret, in order to drive a man to murder. The episode plays with psychological manipulation brilliantly, building a rich atmosphere in which a man can be driven to the brink of insanity only to be pulled back in order to assassinate a brutal leader. For Bain, it was a particularly risky episode, as she would actually need to sing and dance in the episode. “Romping around on the bar was just so much fun! The singing was something else, though. I am not a singer. I was one of those kids who was told not to sing, just mouth the words in elementary school. When Bruce came to me and said I would be singing in the next episode I nearly fainted. With as much breath as I had left, I told him I could not sing. He said the range was small and he knew I could do it. The hardest part was recording it with the top musicians that Bruce had rounded up. They knew what they were doing. I did not. I thanked them before we recorded for the patience and kindness. They were great and it worked!!”
Another groundbreaking aspect of Mission was the casting of Greg Morris in a major co-starring role in the series. It was almost unheard of at the time for African American actors to be major co-stars, especially when the character had as much depth as Morris’ Barney did. “There again… Bruce Geller! He wanted to cast that role just as he did. He wanted to portray an African American in a position that required intelligence, skill and competence equal to the other leads and with no comment made as to his presence or his race. This was not seen at the time on American TV. The only other show with a black man in the lead was ‘I Spy’ and it was comedy.”
Perhaps one of the most innovative aspects of Mission was the fact that Geller, his writers and an incredibly talented cast managed to weave very subtle social commentary into each episode and make you care about not only the success of each mission, but also about the characters, despite the fact that you never once learned of the personal background of our leads. “Again, Bruce knew somehow each of us brought our own essences or, whatever it is called to the challenge at hand. Our bond was our work and our respect for each other which played out when we were in danger (which was always).” This is a structure unique in television history and one that, to my knowledge, has never been successfully repeated.
Bain’s fondness and respect for Geller is apparent. “Bruce was a man of great intelligence and a man of few words. His words went into his writing; the stories came from him and he had an undying faith in me and what I could project.” And that faith in her ability clearly had a profound effect on Bain and her career. She would go on to win three Emmy® awards for her portrayal of Cinnamon Carter (1967, 1968 and 1969), becoming the first actress in history to win three consecutive Emmys for Best Actress in a Dramatic Series, a record that would stand for nearly two decades. On viewing all the various episodes, it’s clear why Bain won the accolades. Her performances are nuanced and dramatic and breathtaking all at the same time. And, while Bain does not at all discount her work, it seems clear to me that she is appreciative of Bruce Geller’s words and vision for contributing greatly to her success.
1969 was a bittersweet year for Bain. She’d won her third Emmy Award, but she also found herself embroiled in a situation that heralded her departure from the show that had made her a star. There have been more rumors than facts over the years about Bain’s departure from Mission: Impossible. Stories circulated that she wanted to get into feature films. Still others insisted she demanded a huge salary increase while others said she left in reaction to the “studio’s treatment” of Landau during his contract negotiations. So, I decided to ask her point-blank. “Would you like to set the record straight on the departure?”
Looking up, she thinks for a moment and then says, “The only true and full account was written one year or so later by a journalist whose name was, I think, Richard Lewis. He came with a preconceived idea but found the true story, researched it thoroughly, and it was published in the TV Guide. But, all the other press which was not true had preceded it and was written in the minds of many and have become a bit of urban myth.”
That’s it. She says nothing more, clearly not feeling the need to correct all that came before. No need to convince people of the real story behind it all. It’s past. People will likely believe what they want to believe.
I, however, was still curious. Luckily, Team Bain Star member Karen dug through her collection and managed to find a copy of the article which she’d clipped out of an October, 1969 TV Guide. Entitled “Is This Mission Possible?” and written by Richard Warren Lewis it is, as Bain said, a very different account than all the rumors and innuendo and probably the most balanced account I have ever read of the debacle that led to Bain’s departure from Mission: Impossible.
In a fascinating ten-page contemporaneous dissection of the events that had actually occurred, Lewis very briefly interviews Bain (and even more briefly, Landau) but spends most of his time focusing on the perspectives of Geller, Mike Dann (then head of CBS) and the then newly appointed head of Paramount Television, Douglas S. Cramer.
In 1967, Desilu sold its studio and intellectual properties, including Mission, to Gulf and Western, the parent company of Paramount Studios, and promptly renamed it Paramount Television. As season 3 of the series was broadcasting, the newly Cramer was given the task of overseeing the television business and his focus was cutting costs. Through various “studies,” Cramer concluded that Peter Graves as Jim Phelps was the only character the audience felt was required in the show. In short, Cramer believed all other cast members were expendable. Given that Landau was on a year to year contract and was able to negotiate a higher salary for each subsequent season, that was the first place Cramer felt costs could be cut and he began setting the stage for Landau (and Bain’s) departure through stories planted in the press.
Geller and Dann were alarmed at Cramer’s actions, especially considering at that time in his career he had never actually produced any television shows. And Cramer’s cost-cutting bulls-eye was not just centered on the cast. He felt most of the crew were over-priced and just as expendable as the regular cast members. The article even quotes Dann as saying, “That [expletive deleted] Doug Cramer is crazy.” CBS and Geller were beside themselves with what Cramer was doing. But ultimately, Landau was out and Leonard Nimoy was in.
Bain, while commiserating with her then-husband, was prepared to go back to work. However, she received a certified letter demanding that she report for wardrobe fittings on days when the studios knew she was not available. She asked for permission from the production to report to work two days later. At that point, Cramer saw his opening for further cost savings and began circulating stories that Bain was refusing to return to work.
In this article, Lewis clearly points out that money for Bain was never at issue (her per season salary bumps having been pre-negotiated the prior season) and that Bain was ready and willing to return to work. Lewis definitely paints Cramer as the villain, a combination of his desire to cut costs and his own ego trip, and the numerous quotes from Geller and Dann clearly support his perspective.
In the end, as everyone knows, Bain was ousted from the series, “replaced” in the fourth season by a rotating set of guest actresses that never clicked with the audience. Once all the dust had settled, Bain moved on to a Steven Spielberg pilot entitled Savage and then on to the British cult-classic space opera, Space: 1999.
Despite the abrupt and unexpected end to her time on Mission: Impossible, it is clear that the good times on the series far outweighed any of the bad. “It was a lovely time,” she says.
Sadly, our time together must come to an end and as we head for the door, the waiter bids her goodbye in his native tongue. She smiles and bids him the same. Outside, I decide I will wait until her car arrives from the valet, but she will have none of it. “Oh, don’t wait for me,” she says, reaching for a hug. “I’m just fine.” And so I head down the street to where my car is parked. As I do so, I glance over my shoulder one last time and see her laughing with the parking attendant, and I think, just like her alter ego Cinnamon Carter, Barbara Bain is one damn classy lady!
*Despite many internet sites claiming Bain’s birth name was Millicent, her real birth name was Mildred as the actress confirmed, rather humorously with Ed Asner, at the Walk of Fame star ceremony.