Good Evening, Mr. Phelps

Back in the 1980s, I didn’t much like television. There were kitschy, fun shows from the sixties and seventies that I liked, and TV started to get interesting in the nineties when Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and NYPD Blue came along. But what came out in the eighties that I still like? I can’t think of anything.

That’s probably why I latched on to late night repeats of Mission: Impossible as my favorite show. Frankly, it still is. Mission was smart, stylish, different, totally addictive, and way ahead of its time. (I challenge you to watch 24, Alias, Leverage, MI-5 — all great shows, at times — or any other contemporary spy series without seeing its influence.) I think Mission still informs my every creative pursuit, in good and probably bad ways, and it was certainly formative  material for a lot of my later interests, both in literature and pop culture.

For a while, it ran at midnights every night, and I would stay up every night to watch it, school be damned. When VCRs came into the picture, I started taping the episodes…when I could find them. Mission got harder and harder to find in syndication for a while there, and I spent years trying to complete the collection, but now with three million channels and the TV-to-DVD explosion, they’re readily available.

A little while ago I finally bought the final (and, by far, the worst) season on DVD. (I’m a completist, what can I say?) I’ve been meaning to write up a Mission: Impossible post ever since. The time kept eluding me.

Then, last weekend, Peter Graves died, so I felt I needed to do this. As Jim Phelps, Graves was the heart and soul of Mission: Impossible, and frankly, I just liked the guy. There was something kind of reassuring about his cool, calm professionalism. His acting on the show could be pretty uneven — I mean, some of the accents, yikes. But ultimately, I think Graves was made for Mission: Impossible, and a huge reason it lasted as long as it did. You could give that guy the most awkward expositional dialogue and he could make it sound like ordering a sandwich. “The microreceiver will be implanted in my ear tonight.” What? My favorite scene in every episode was always the apartment scene, where the team cryptically revealed clues about the mission-to-come. From time to time, even the brilliant Martin Landau struggled with his dialogue in this scene, but Graves could pull it off without a hitch, no matter how awkward. He was a machine.

Anyway, as my little mini-tribute to Peter Graves, I thought I’d write up a little post of my favorite Phelps episodes of Mission: Impossible, should any of you share my weird passion for this old, great show. These aren’t necessarily the best episodes of the series, but they all have great Peter Graves moments.

  • “The Survivors” (season two) – This very early Phelps episode is average by the high standards of season two, famous for its elaborate earthquake ruse, but Graves hits the ground running as an earnest, resourceful scientist. The plan has him falling into the hands of the nefarious Albert Paulsen in order to facilitate the rescue of two kidnapped scientists who are being forced to make a doomsday weapon.
  • “Trek” (season two) – Here’s a classic Phelps tough guy role, as he inserts himself between two vicious antagonists in order to lead the team to a stolen art treasure. Just an okay plot, but great production values and a great role for Phelps. He would play variations on this role throughout the series.
  • “The Seal” (season two) – The famous “cat burglar” episode, wherein the team infiltrates the impregnable high-rise vault of callous businessman Darren McGavin to liberate a stolen artifact. Yes, they use an actual cat! Graves scores here both for his amusingly affected Cleveland businessman and his convincing rapport with the feline guest star. (“Don’t drop it!”)
  • “The Emerald”  (season two) – Graves had a knack for engagingly obnoxious Old Boys Network types, and he’s a hoot here as a drunken lout on a pleasure cruise, tormenting poor Barbara Bain in a high-stakes poker game to retrieve a microfilm-bearing emerald from slimy villain William Smithers.
  • “The Mind of Stefan Miklos” (season three) – Perhaps the best Mission ever, and certainly the most elaborately plotted. Phelps hatches his most complicated plan to fool an equally brilliant enemy investigator who’s attempting to verify the accuracy of some stolen intelligence. If you only watch one episode of Mission: Impossible, watch this one.
  • “Nicole” (season three) – The show tried a number of whirlwind romances during its run, but most of them fail. This one (from the same writer as “Miklos”) is a dark and twisty adventure, and one of the few credible Mission romances, as Phelps falls for guest star Joan Collins.
  • “The Numbers Game” (season four) – A great time warp/big store con. The team convinces evil dictator Torin Thatcher that World War III is under way, by sealing him into a bunker and manipulating his isolated environment. Phelps’ schemes often cast him as the strict authoritarian type, and his fanatical military officer here is a great example. (Also a great outing for Leonard Nimoy as a surly subordinate with whom Phelps clashes.)
  • “Fool’s Gold”  (season four) – This episode, in which the team thwarts an economy-wrecking counterfeiting plot, focuses largely on amusing, scheming chemistry between Leonard Nimoy and Nehemiah Persoff, but Graves is great here in a supporting role as a repressed, prudish baron who falls pray to blackmail.
  • “Orpheus” (season four) – Phelps plays a desperate defector, selling secrets to the enemy (again, Albert Paulsen!), notionally to feed his heroin habit — but in reality to convey false intelligence that casts suspicion on an enemy operative. Graves really goes for it in his withdrawal scenes.
  • “Blind” (season six) – There aren’t a lot of great episodes in the later years, but this is a highlight, and Graves carries the day as a hard-luck ex-federal agent on the make, with a drinking problem. Phelps temporarily disables his own eyesight to carry this one off!
  • “Stone Pillow”  (season six) – Snappy crime lingo saves this run-of-the-mill season six plot, and Graves is great here as “the Professor,” the brilliant criminal cellmate of hard-nosed thug Bradford Dillman.

Here’s to you, Peter Graves — thanks for all the memories!

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