A Spy’s Last Gasp: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and IT TAKES A THIEF
By John C. Alsedek:
As I touched on last time, spy-themed TV shows were all the rage in the 1960s: dashing secret agents doing battle with cartoonishly evil opponents set on world domination via cartoonishly evil means. Some of the best villains include Dr. Miguelito Loveless (as played by Michael Dunn) on The Wild Wild West, Colonel Hubris (as played by Victor Buono) on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mother Muffin (as played by Boris Karloff) on The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., and Dr. Clement Armstrong (as played by Michael Gough) on The Avengers. But by the 1966–67 season, things had reached a tipping point, as the wild success of the Adam West Batman series had pushed network executives to up the camp level of their spy shows till they were often even sillier than the Mel Brooks/Buck Henry program Get Smart—and Get Smart was meant to be a spoof!
As a result, a new subgenre of spy shows took to the airwaves: one that tracked more toward realism, with more believable opponents who had more believable objectives. In particular, two of these new programs really clicked with American television audiences: Mission: Impossible and It Takes a Thief.
Premiering on September 17th, 1966, Mission: Impossible was the first of the two to make it onto the U.S. airwaves, and it could not have been more different from the campfests that most TV spy shows had devolved into. In fact, right from the opening credits of each episode (propelled by a lit fuse and Lalo Schifrin’s intense, propulsive theme music), Mission: Impossible was virtually a humor-free zone. Rather, the focus was on the painstaking development of each mission; credit to creator Bruce Geller for keeping to his vision of the show, and to Desilu Productions (which had also gone out on a limb to get Star Trek on the air) for backing Geller despite any misgivings CBS may have had.
Mission: Impossible concerned the adventures of the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), a nebulous group that worked directly for an even more nebulous U.S. government organization referred to on occasion as "Division Seven." For all but the first season, the IMF’s leader was Jim Phelps (as played by Peter Graves), who received the IMF’s marching orders from an anonymous superior via reel-to-reel tape and then gathered a specific team for that mission. The missions themselves varied but generally involved objectives such as stealing (or stealing back) top-secret plans or persons of interest or else bringing about the downfall of hostile actors such as dictators and crime bosses.
To accomplish these goals, Phelps would bring in a hand-picked team of IMF operatives. The initial idea for this was to have 2–3 regular characters who were then supplemented by one-off guest stars; however, that idea was largely discarded and instead a core quartet of regular agents emerged:
Model & actress Cinnamon Carter (as played by Barbara Bain)
Engineering & electronics wizard Barney Collier (as played by Greg Morris)
Strong man Willy Armitage (as played by Peter Lupus)
"Man of a Million Faces" Rollin Hand (as played by Martin Landau)
There were changes in this group over the course of Mission: Impossible’s seven-season run. Bain and Landau (who were married in real life) left after season three; Landau was replaced for seasons 4 & 5 by Leonard Nimoy (as "The Great Paris"), while a number of actresses filled Bain’s shoes, including Lee Meriwether, Lesley Ann Warren, Lynda Day George, and Barbara Anderson. Producer Bruce Lansbury (who took over in season 5) tried to replace Peter Lupus with a young Sam Elliott, but the public outcry in support of Lupus saw Lansbury ultimately back down; Lupus and Morris were the only two actors to appear in all seven seasons of the show.
As for It Takes a Thief, it had a somewhat similar premise, albeit approached from a different direction and with a slightly lighter tone. Created by screenwriter Roland Kibbee, the primary inspiration for the show’s concept is given as the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant—so much so that the show’s lead, Robert Wagner, met with Grant to help develop his characterization of master thief Alexander Mundy. But it also may have been slightly influenced by the short-lived NBC series T.H.E. Cat, which starred Robert Loggia as a former circus acrobat/cat burglar who gave up his criminal ways and aided the police in cases.
The basic premise of It Takes a Thief was this: Alexander Mundy, a master thief who uses his ill-gotten gains to support his lifestyle as a jet-setting international playboy, finally gets caught, tried, and imprisoned. While serving his sentence in San Jobel Prison, Mundy is approached by Noah Bain (as played by Malachi Throne), a member of the fictional U.S. spy organization the SIA (Secret Intelligence Agency). Bain (who was the man who caught Mundy in the first place) has a proposition for him: he’ll get Mundy released and set up in a luxurious mansion, but only if Mundy agrees to go to work for the SIA. When Mundy protests that spying is outside his area of expertise, Bain famously retorts, “Oh, look, Al. I’m not asking you to spy. I’m just asking you to steal.” And steal Mundy does, over the course of three seasons and 66 episodes.
Throne had a contract dispute and didn’t return for the third season of It Takes a Thief; he was replaced by Edward Binns, a fine character actor but one who lacked Throne’s specific brand of gravitas. The third season also saw the addition of legendary hoofer Fred Astaire as Alexander Munday’s gentleman-thief father, Alistair.
However, by this time, the public’s interest in spy shows had waned. By the time It Takes a Thief first aired in January 1968, stalwarts like I Spy and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. were filming their last episodes and would be cancelled within months. The Wild Wild West and The Avengers would follow suit in 1969, and Get Smart would end its five-season run just a few months after It Takes a Thief in 1970. Only Mission: Impossible lasted into the 1970s, and only then by changing its format to more closely match the police/private-eye programs that had fully replaced the secret-agent sagas. Mission: Impossible went off the air on March 30th, 1973, though it would return as a reboot (with only Graves returning from the original cast) on ABC from 1988–1990 and as a tentpole movie franchise starring Tom Cruise from 1996 until present.
Mission: Impossible’s Greg Morris was one of the first wave of African-American actors who helped "normalize" POC (People of Color) as stars of mainstream television shows. But do you know that one of the pioneers of Black representation on TV actually made his name in radio? We’ll be looking at the career and influence of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.