Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Honey, I Shrunk the Hero, or Mission: Infinitesimal

Sometimes in mid-summer I have a desperate need to see a lightweight popcorn movie. Ant-Man certainly qualifies. It features, along with such likable actors as Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, and Bobby Cannavale, a goofy story about yet another threat to mankind as we know it. The trailers leading up to this film contain plenty of those: it’s clear that this autumn Fantastic Four and Superman v. Batman will have a lot of world-saving to do. But I suspect those films won’t reduce their heroes to insect size, nor will they call upon armies of helpful ants to defeat the inevitably bald-headed villain, played with a glower and a great wardrobe by Corey Stoll. (I’ve heard there are hair-challenged men out there who’re forming a new Anti-Defamation League protesting the assumption that all bald white guys are up to no good.) At any rate, if you like your derring-do tempered with deadpan humor, Ant-Man nicely fills the bill. Special kudos to Michael Peña as a lovably dim sidekick, and to Disney for its willingness to poke fun at its Marvel-ous connections. (It’s a small world, after all.)

Of course, some folks like their thrill rides to be a bit more realistically scary. I’m told that the brand-new Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation does a great job in that respect. Frankly, Tom Cruise scares me at the best of times, but (given his enormous physicality and his love for doing his own hair-raising stunts) he truly owns this particular genre. The weekend box-office numbers suggest that, despite his weird marital  history and offbeat religious affiliations, Cruise must be doing SOMETHING right.

But of course it’s hard for me to associate Tom Cruise with Mission: Impossible. You see, I’m an old-fashioned girl. And when I think about Mission: Impossible, I’m remembering a TV series that ran from 1966 to 1973. All of us college kids were rooting for the Mission: Impossible team, covert operatives who each week thwarted bad guys on behalf of the U.S. government. There was stalwart Peter Graves, as James Phelps, the grey-haired leader. There was Martin Landau as smart, tricky Rollin Hand. There was Landau’s wife, Barbara Bain, as Cinnamon Carter, Hand’s equal as a master of disguises. There was the hulking Peter Lupus, the team’s designated muscle. Finally, there was Greg Morris. In that era, when civil rights issues were on everyone’s mind, it was important to have a black man on board.  And he had to bely old stereotypes by playing a role that was intellectual rather than chiefly physical in nature. So Morris was the team electronics expert. I never knew exactly what he was doing as – under duress -- he switched wires around. But he’d always sweat beautifully, so it was clear that this was very hard work.

Of course, part of the thrill of Mission: Impossible came from Lalo Schifrin’s throbbing theme music. And the series also had a weekly opening that was ripe for memorization and parody. After an exciting montage featuring a burning fuse, Peter Graves would play a mysterious tape recording briefing him on the job at hand. It always contained the words, “Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it . . . .”  (I certainly don’t recall fearless Mr. Phelps ever turning anything down.)  Then came the best part: the tape, as promised would automatically self-destruct.

Years later, when phone machines were new and exciting gadgets, my voice recording told callers that their mission (should they choose to accept it) was to leave a message, or risk automatically self-destructing. Well, it seemed pretty clever back then.  

Speaking of threats to the world as we know it, here’s a link to a piece I just published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (yes, really!) on the very serious matter of nuclear radiation, as it pertains to Nevil Shute’s novel (which became Stanley Kramer’s film), On the Beach. 


  1. Mission Impossible is my very favorite TV series. I saw bits as a small child - but it wasn't a show that got a lot of rerun play in the afternoons like Batman or Star Trek. I finally caught up with it back in the early days of the F/X network - when it was aired live from a building in New York City with hosts throughout the day introducing each show. They aired Mission Impossible twice a day, at noon and midnight. I was working in the industry at the time, but I dutifully timer taped every episode on VHS over the course of six or eight months (there were 177 episodes, or something around that). What a show. I love your take on Greg Morris's character - "I never knew exactly what he was doing as – under duress -- he switched wires around. But he’d always sweat beautifully, so it was clear that this was very hard work." Ha! His character was Barney Collier, and Peter Lupus was Willy Armitage. Across the seven seasons there were other noteworthy cast members as people came and went. The first season - the leader was Steven Hill as Dan Briggs. He got fired for being defiant off set. He went on to many other acting jobs and was on more than 200 episodes of Law and Order. Back at M:I - after finishing his run at Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy moved literally next door and took on master of disguise duties as Paris after Landau and Bain left. Lesley Ann Warren, Sam Elliott, and Lynda Day George all spent some time on the squad. And one other wild story about the show - 15 years after it was cancelled, there was a major WGA writer's strike going on. ABC brought Mission Impossible back to life - using the original series scripts with allowed minor updating elements. They brought back Peter Graves as Jim Phelps - and got Greg Morris and Lynda Day George to make guest appearances as their series characters - and best of all - they hired Greg Morris's real life son Phil Morris (best known as lawyer Jackie Chiles from Seinfeld) to play Grant Collier - son of Barney Collier! They got two seasons out of the second series - and got to do original episodes when the strike ended.

    I like some of the Mission Impossible movies. The first was okay - except for the casual turning traitor of one of the series characters - played by a different actor in the movie. The second was a typical over the top John Woo movie with nothing to do with the series. The third was better - but fell down in a never ending series of double, triple, and quadruple crosses. The fourth movie was the best - the closest to the series. This new one was very good, but number 4 still tops them all in my book.

  2. I do love all this history. Thanks for being such a serious fan!