14 top secret things you never knew about 'Mission: Impossible'
This article will not self-destruct.
Image: The Everett Collection
Long before Tom Cruise was dangling from the sides of airplanes, Mission: Impossible was known for thrills, suspense and ripping off rubber faces. The original television series premiered in 1966, a glorious year for the medium, along with Star Trek and Batman. It was a good time to be a kid in front of the tube.
That unmistakable theme sent chills down the spine. Dun-dun-DUT-DUT-dun-dun-DUN-DUT… It made anyone want to sneak across a rooftop at night. Lalo Schifrin's music was a vital part of the IMF's not-so-impossible missions.
A stellar cast helped to elevate this small-screen adventure to cinematic quality. Martin Landau and wife Barbara Bain headlined. Later, after Star Trek wrapped, Leonard Nimoy jumped aboard. Of course, there was Peter Graves, Greg Morris, Peter Lupus, Sam Elliott and more.
Let's light the fuse and take a read of the dossier on Mission: Impossible.
It was inspired by a 1964 heist movie.
Peter Ustinov took home an Oscar for his work in Topkapi, a dazzling heist film that set the mold for modern capers. A motley crew of crooks, including a mute acrobat dubbed "The Human Fly," teams up to steal a dagger from a Turkish palace. The exotic location and premise inspired Bruce Geller, a producer on Rawhide at the time, to craft his own cloak-and-dagger series.
The original concept for the show was called 'Briggs' Squad'
The original pitch centered around six former military specialists led by Lt. Col. David Briggs of the U.S. Special Forces. His crew would discretely commit criminal acts for a common good. Frankly, it sounded a little bit like Suicide Squad. To make the idea tamer for 1960s television, Geller came up with the more outwardly heroic IMF — the Impossible Missions Force.
Dan Briggs and Jim Phelps listened to every self-destructing tape, with one exception.
"This message will self-destruct…" IMF leader Dan Briggs, played by Steven Hill, pictured at the bottom here, would listen to the iconic self-destructing messages throughout the first season. Peter Graves, who took over the lead role in season two, would then receive the mission briefings. In just one instance did another character receive the top-secret tape. In episode 23, "Action!," Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) listens to the recorded message.
Image: The Everett Collection
Creator Bruce Geller is the hand lighting the match in the opening credits.
Yes, those are the hands of the series' creator appropriately setting things in motion in the opening credits.
The show invented all of its Eastern European countries.
Svardia, Elkabar, Povia, Valeria, Lombuanda, Santales, Surananka, Veyska — you will not find them on a map. Unless that map is in an episode of Mission: Impossible.
The fake foreign language seen on the show was referred to as "Gellerese."
Vaguely German, vaguely Romanian, a phony foreign language can be seen on signs in the show. The letters are peppered with accents, S's are liberally replaced Z's. So as not to offend any actual nationalities, the language was entirely made up, and the crew referred to the fictional tongue as "Gellerese" in tribute to the show's creator.
The theme song is written in 5/4 time.
Lala Schifrin's bouncy theme made the pop charts in 1968, climbing to No. 41. It was the rare pop tune — and TV theme — written in 5/4 time, with five beats in a measure instead of the common four. The most notable example of this time signature is "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck.
Martin Landau's character almost had a surprisingly similar name.
Geller had his friend Martin Landau in mind when he created the role of his "Man of a Million Faces." In fact, the disguise master was first known as "Martin Land." That evolved to "Martin Hand" in the first draft of the first script. In December 1965, the character's name was at last changed to "Rollin Hand."
In early episodes, the tape would literally self-destruct.
Initially, the special effects crew applied a chemical to the tape to make it smoke and decompose. This was not only costly and tricky, it wasn't quite as dramatic as they had hoped. Eventually, the crew resorted to piping smoke through the reel-to-reel player through a hidden hose. Yes, they were just blowing smoke, so to speak.
The tapes were actually rewinding, not playing.
Speaking of those tape players, the devices just did not look that exciting when playing. The reels spun too slow. So, they were set to rewind for filming, to make the reels spin faster.
The show shared a studio and several actors with 'Star Trek.'
Both Mission: Impossible and Star Trek were the work of Desilu Productions, the production house run by Lucille Ball. As both shows were of the same family, cast members could be seen in both productions. After Landau left the series following the third season, Leonard Nimoy filled his shoes (well, masks and wigs) as "Paris." It was ironic, as Landau had previously turned down the role of Spock! William Shatner and George Takei can also be seen on M:I, as well as dozens of Star Trek guest stars like Ricardo Montalban, Joan Collins, Michael Ansara, Willian Schallert, Gary Lockwood, Lee Meriwether and more.
Image: The Everett Collection
The voice on the tape might sound familiar.
Former accountant Bob Johnson is the unseen voice on the self-destructing tapes. He earned $125 for his work in the pilot. Johnson's few other credits include Star Trek, naturally, and several episodes of The Outer Limits, including the unforgettable "The Zanti Misfits." Indeed, he gave a voice to those creepy alien ants. He also voiced aliens in "The Guests," "Don't Open Till Doomsday" and several other episodes.
Peter Graves is the younger brother of James Arness.
Born Peter Duesler Aurness, Graves was born three years after his elder sibling, James, the towering star of Gunsmoke. One family producing both Marshal Matt Dillon and Jim Phelps — now those are some genes.
Chevy Chase wrote a 'Mission: Impossible' parody for Mad Magazine.
In 1970, years before he joined the original cast of Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase briefly crafted a spoof of M:I for Mad. In the piece, a talking bathroom sink informs Jim Phelps he has been terminated for wasting goverment money on "laser-beam fountain pens" and whatnot.
Image: DC Comics / madcoversite.com