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Should You Choose To Accept: “Mission Impossible”‘s Barbara Bain

From 1966-1973 America had a love affair with a spy. Mission: Impossible aired the weekly exploits of a team of espionage agents as they destabilized governments, stole weapons of mass destruction, and charmed the pants off the bad guys while sneaking out the back door. In the middle of this was one Cinnamon Carter. Portrayed by Barbara Bain, Carter was a model who could hold her own in a long con and in a tight spot (unless it was a literal tight spot, since the character was claustrophobic). Barbara won three Emmys in a row for the three seasons she appeared on the show before leaving in solidarity with then-husband Martin Landau over a contract dispute. We talked with the actress about playing Cinnamon, her time on Space: 1999 (check out our preview of the upcoming Space: 1999 graphic novel), and her continued activities in the world of acting.

Nerdist: How did you get approached to play Cinnamon Carter?

Barbara Bain: It’s so wonderful, truly. Bruce Geller had come out here from New York. He was brought out because he was such a good writer. I think he did a couple of Playhouse 90s and a couple of other things like that. We were all in an acting class together and from that class he actually wrote the part for Martin, Man of a Thousand Faces actor person. Then he told me later, because he didn’t tell me at the time, that unconsciously I got written in there without him really thinking about it until he started really thinking about the girl, and she was called at the time The Girl. I had to go through a series of auditions, which I did. It was an interesting process, because he never said to me that that was what he always had in mind.

He was a very, very strong willed man who did what he decided to do, so he held his ground through all those auditions. He kept saying no, he wanted me, he wanted me, none of which I knew. Later on he told me how that came about. His knowledge of me as an actress from that class is what gave him the courage, I guess, to write those parts where I could play all kinds of things within that glamour structure of Cinnamon Carter.

N:  Was this at the Actors Studio?

BB: No. It was a private class that Martin Landau was teaching when he had first come out here. He had come out with a play, Middle of the Night, a national tour, a Paddy Chayefsky play called Middle of the Night. There was a theater where there is now a tower at the Biltmore Hotel, and it was the theater where all the New York companies played. We were in Wonderland in Los Angeles. The sky was on the ground. It was kind of a fascinatingly unusual place and all these good things started to happen. So there we are.

N: Playing Cinnamon Carter… obviously you won three Emmys for playing her. Do you think part of that was the fact that you got to not only show off your ability as Cinnamon Carter, but you were playing characters within characters?

BB: No question. It was a totally extraordinary dream role for an actress. Yes, exactly. There wasn’t anything like that anywhere, certainly for a woman and certainly for an actress. Yes, that is why. There’s no question. The competition as such was unfair, if you ask me. Not that I want to argue with it or rewrite it.

N: Cinnamon Carter was at the end of the day a very positive role model. She very much owned who she was. How do you feel about the legacy you left for women on television?

BB: I don’t know. There’s no question that Bruce wrote a strong woman, and that was very unusual for television at the time. I was the first woman with the guys. I was one of the big boys playing on that turf. No questions asked. I was capable of being on this turf. I wasn’t saying yes dear, no dear and stirring a pot. I did become in many, many ways a role model for many, many young women who stop me still on the street or in supermarkets, all sorts of places, and tell me that I was instrumental in them going for a career or for some such thing that they wanted in life, whatever it was. It’s very gratifying. That was clearly what he had in mind. He thought I personified that. You were either smart and not-so-good looking, or smart and good looking wasn’t exactly a combination in Hollywood at the time. He wanted that combination and he saw that in me and there it was.

N: When Steven Hill left the show, but before Peter Graves had been brought on, the writers actually decided to have Cinnamon lead the mission for one episode. Was that a big thing for you?

BB: It was all a big deal. One thing or the next. The show was so well done from the beginning. Every single one of them felt like we were in clover. The scripts would come down. Yes, we got them the day before we started the next one. We did the read through when we were still finishing the last one. It was tight scheduling, but there was never any question that they were ready to go. Only one time and that was fairly early on, maybe midway in that first season, there was a question that I had about the character, the character within the show. I went upstairs as it was called because the writers were all up, which was, the first year, mostly Bruce. As I walked in the door, they said, “Oh yes,” before I even asked the question. They said, “Oh yes, we’ve taken out the part where she bumps into furniture.” It was something like that which didn’t make sense with how the story was. It was already answered. They were so ready.

They were all just wonderful to be a part of. It was a very exciting, certainly marvelous way to begin a career. Though I had worked quite a bit prior to it, it became the… It was one of the last shows on television, before cable, so everybody, the whole country sat down on Sunday night. It was the last thing before the week started, the work week started, so everybody watched it together. It had just an enormous impact. It was fun.

N: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. opened the door for spy shows, but Mission: Impossible was a little bit more contemporary in the assignments and political scenarios the characters were being put in. 

BB: It was fascinating, because years afterwards, many people who were more attached to that whole world than I really was, I was playing it, would ask me about certain things on the show and how did we know about it. We didn’t know about it. It was being written and we were doing it. The interesting thing about the show was we never killed anybody. We never harmed them. We got them to undo themselves. That was the mind game of the show. For the most part, and in its time, it was seen as a fantasy. People didn’t really even know that we so much realized that these things were really going on.

Recently I saw Argo. There’s a character that John Goodman plays, Johnny Chambers, who was the person who created the masks for Martin on those shows. There was Johnny. In terms of time frame, I think the thing with Argo was later, but nevertheless, I don’t know how often did he work for the CIA. We didn’t know any of that. He was a master makeup person, and on our set they started installing a whole kind of thing where they could make right there in the makeup room those masks, because they had to produce one every week for him. It was not done prior to that, so it had its own difficulties. Then they ended up, I think, with a place on the Fox lot where they could do it and bring them over. The point is that was Johnny Chambers. There’s John Goodman playing him and it was like, “Oh, okay.” There were many things that other folks knew that I don’t think we knew one way or the other.

N: So you just saw him every day for disguises and make-up effects and he was living a secret life.

BB: Yes. Johnny Chambers, he wasn’t as big a guy as John Goodman. He was shorter and he was a stocky guy and he did have a limp. There was Johnny walking around. Brilliant makeup guy, just brilliant, who did those masks out of latex pieces and all of that stuff. It was a very fascinating process.

N: I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you a few questions about Space 1999. 

BB: Yes, okay.

N: That show didn’t approach television in the most traditional way; what was that like?

BB: It was interestingly made. Lew Grade, who was I think just Sir when we arrived in England, but by the time we left he was Lord Lew Grade. He was the producer of the show and he made it in a very interesting way in that he made it for American television, worldwide television primarily, which was a new concept at the time and he didn’t want to deal with the American schedule. It was sold worldwide and at anytime anywhere. Therefore, it played in 130 countries, immediately. He marketed it that way. We weren’t tied into producing on an American schedule for the season and it was very interesting because nobody else had quite done that with dramatic material. People loved the show, and there’s still a very vital group of people who follow around all over the world celebrating it.

N: At one time there was talk of a major motion picture for that and it all fell apart. Were you involved in that?

BB: No. It never got to that point as far as I knew. They were just here, a huge fan club. They have a convention every number of years and they were just all here still all excited about that show. I saw art. They had plastered the entire wall of this hotel where the convention was, with still shots from the show, some of which I don’t even remember ever seeing. They were just fantastic. All blown up. All excited. These kids know every single word of every script.

N: More people are discovering it all the time. People hold that show in high regard. Some people didn’t realize the quality until much later.

BB: Again, probably because it wasn’t network. It was early days to have something on at a time people couldn’t grab so quickly.

N: Are you still teaching at the Actor’s Studio?

BB: I do teach, yes. I’ve been an active member of the Actors Studio I guess at least half of my life by now, if not more. We have a theater out here and a workshop. I’ve done quite a bit of work there. Yes, I started teaching a private class. I love what I do and I feel I have a certain amount to hand down and it’s very exciting to work with young people. I’ve been doing a lot of things. I’ve been directing in the theater quite a bit. This past year actually has been amazing. I’ve done two plays, one of which was written for me, and the other was not. I’ve been acting in two plays. I’ve directed two pieces in the theater, very, very well received. I’ve done two films so I’ve been really … That’s all this particular year so I’ve been having a good time all around and teaching. It’s been very, very exciting. I’m still very connected to what I care so much about.

N: How do you feel about the fandom that has blossomed around your career?

BB: Let me just say, I can say that certainly in the beginning I didn’t get it because I wasn’t one of those kids who was a fan as such. I didn’t quite understand it. Little by little, because there was a wonderful fan club that supported me, I got to know the people. In fact they still come. If I’m in a theater somewhere they’ll come from all kinds of places and there they are. One of the shows that I was in at the beginning of this year, I was handed a script from one of the first three jobs I ever got as an actress 800 years ago in New York. There was a script and by the way it was Larry Hagman and I were sweethearts. We were engaged to be married in that script and I was a lobster fisherman’s daughter. We shot it in Rockport, Massachusetts. Of course we just lost Larry.

What I’m trying to say, ultimately, is that I really began to appreciate fans in a certain way that I hadn’t before when I got to know them as people through the years, because certain numbers keep showing up and there they would be again and there to see me in a show. I got to know them, and in fact, at one point, I actually sent them a letter saying that the work I do makes me go very inside and the fact that I open my eyes and they’re out there, it means a great deal.

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The Complete Mission: Impossible Collector’s Box Set is in stores tomorrow, and you can see our preview of the new Space:1999 Graphic Novels from Archaia now. 

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