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Monday, April 21, 2008

L&O Actors in Other Roles: Steven Hill in Mission Impossible TV Series



Long before he sat in the big chair as District Attorney Adam Schiff on Law & Order, Steven Hill was involved in international intrigue on the TV series Mission: Impossible. Steven starred as the head of the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) for the first season that the show aired in 1966-67. I was only about 12 years old then, but I remember being glued to the TV when the show was airing. It was different and exciting. Of course we only had three or four channels at that time and I don’t think my parents had a color TV yet either, so we may have found ourselves watching MI simply because there wasn’t anything else available. (Funny, with 200+ channels now, I still sometimes can’t find anything good to watch. But I digress.)

Last week, out of sheer boredom, I was searching the DVDs at my local public library and stumbled on the complete first season of Mission: Impossible, with none other than Steven Hill in a lead role. So my husband and I watched quite a few episodes this weekend, and we were both a little amused at seeing a much younger Steven in a much different role. Steven played Dan Briggs, the head of the IMF, and lead man in making sure all the missions were staffed with the right people and were accomplished successfully. It is interesting to see that even though many years passed between his role as Dan Briggs and his role as Adam Schiff on Law & Order, he had some of the same mannerisms. I almost found myself expecting the same witty comebacks from Briggs that we got from Schiff. As MI was from the 1960s, the plots were simple, the show looked dated (which I expected), and the methods they use to achieve their missions suspended belief, so the show wasn't as exciting as I remembered. But it was still fun to watch.

Steven left MI after the first season. As he is an Orthodox Jew, he was restricted from working certain days/times to allow him to observe his religion. Over time, these limitations created problems as Steven would not comply with productions schedules. (When Steven began his work with Law & Order, producer Dick Wolf accommodated Steven’s needs.)


Image from TV Guide


The website Bygonetv.com elaborates about Steven and Mission: Impossible:


Steven Hill, who played the original leader of the IMF, Dan Briggs, had become a devout follower of the Jewish faith in1961. Bruce Geller was so keen for Hill to play the lead role that he agreed to his demand to leave work on Friday evenings in time for the start of the Jewish Sabbath at sunset. Steven Hill was not always an easy actor for directors to cope with. However, his ability as an actor was - and still is - highly regarded. Apart from the fact that he could not work on Fridays and Saturdays he could also be single-minded in how to portray his character. This would often bring him into conflict with the director who, as well as sharing the responsibility of interpreting the writer's intentions, also had to get the show finished on time and on budget. Although some of the Desilu executives were uneasy at Hill's appointment, Lucille Ball recognized Geller's determination and championed his cause. Nobody questioned Hill's superb acting ability and the way he made the most of every scene. However, after the first season had finished production Geller and Hill lost their main supporter when, in late 1966, Lucille Ball sold Desilu to Gulf+Western (the deal actually went through in July 1967). Those that opposed Hill's involvement in the show now had more leverage than before. The show was running way over budget and Hill was seen as one of the factors behind this problem.
In an effort to bring the budget back into line, it was decided to film at weekends with many of the crew working for no extra pay. With his strict observance of the Sabbath, Bruce Geller and his writers were forced to reduce Steven Hill's character's appearances. It was probably this and incidents such as when Steven Hill walked off of the set that made up Geller's mind to yield to the pressure from above and fire him. For the second season Geller replaced not only the actor but also the character. That said, it was a straight swap. Dan Briggs became James Phelps and Steven Hill became Peter Graves.
So if you’re looking for something to do and want to see one of Law & Order’s favorite characters in another major role, check out the first season of Mission: Impossible. Your local library may have it on hand so you can watch for free.

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3 comments:

samfan said...

Great post. I have seen him in some of the MI episodes and he does have some of the same mannerisims. It is funny seeing any L&O actors in a movie or on another show because in many cases they act the same.

glen said...

Thank you! It's always wonderful to learn a bit more about my grandfather.

These Are Their Stories said...

So how is your grandfather doing? People ask about him quite a lot, especially recently with L&O celebrating 20 years of shows.