When the spy craze of the 1960s infiltrated the pop culture, “Mission Impossible’s” Cinnamon Carter was the very model of the undercover agent: capable, chameleon-like and oh-so-cool, with more than a hint of spice. And given that the character was inspired by the woman who played her, actress Barbara Bain continues to prove just as able to slip past your defenses.
With the entire seven-season run of “Mission Impossible” now available in a collector’s set, Bain – who in her early 80s still maintains an very active acting and teaching career – recalls her stint on show’s initial three seasons, appearing alongside her husband at the time, actor Martin Landau.
It must be a real treat to see work that you did at that time in your life still be so valued.
It is very special. It is nice to know that something I did so long ago still has resonance. There's something very, very rewarding about it. And it was rewarding at the time. At that age, you don't think of longevity at all. We knew what we were doing we were doing very, very well. We were very proud of that show. It was a treat to do it, every aspect of it – the people involved, everything was just splendid.
When was it first presented to you, and what was the hook that made you and your husband at the time, Martin Landau, want to do it?
We were young actors and work was still very exciting. We had come from New York in a tour of a Broadway play and stayed here because all sorts of work offers kept showing up, so we never got back to New York though that was our intention.
There was an acting class that Martin was asked to teach. He was kind of the star pupil in the class where I met him, and here, he had already kind of had a reputation as he went along, as this New York actor who was so incredible. Martin wanted writers in the class to try to get them to act or at least just see what actors did, what the process was, and in that mix was Robert Towne – who went on to write “Chinatown” and many other wonderful things – and Bruce Geller. Bruce was, of course, the creator of “Mission Impossible.”
It started in that class. He wrote the role of Rollin Hand, the Man of a Thousand Faces, for Martin. The part was written for Martin and The Girl, as she was first called, Bruce didn't tell me at the time that I had kind of crept into his conscious as he was writing it, and he wanted a girl who had these qualities. He wanted her to be terribly sexy and terribly smart, and the combination was not sort of exactly running around in Hollywood at the time. You were either the dumb blonde, or the intellectual, nice person that lived next door. He wanted this combination, and, he said, there I was. He never told me that he actually wrote it for me until after I was cast, and I auditioned over and over and over with all kinds of other folks.
Behind the scenes, the IMF’s boss was Lucille Ball, who owned Desilu at the time.
The last person who had to approve me was Lucy, because she owned the show, she developed it. I was told to go to her office, and she had to approve me, ultimately, for that role. And the approval process consisted of walking into her little bungalow there on the Desilu lot, and she looked at me, up and down, twice, and then said, ‘Looks all right to me!” And that was it. And then we launched this extraordinary experience.
What an extraordinary time, too, because you guys were shooting on the Desilu lot right next door to the original “Star Trek” series.
I remember being in the makeup room when [“Star Trek” makeup artist] Freddy Phillips was checking the ears on Leonard Nimoy. There we were, having a good time. Oh, it was fun, and it was sort of the last moments of the old studio system, so everything was still done in that way: somebody broke one of my windows in my car and I drove in with it, and before I went home it was fixed – there were all these sort of amenities. It was kept like a little town – Desilu’s lot was like a small town, self-contained.
What do you think it was that clicked between you and the character of Cinnamon?
That was just a sheer joy to have the chance not only to play Cinnamon Carter but have the chance of playing an independent woman. It was very rare on television to not have somebody saying, ‘Yes, dear. No, dear, and stirring the pot.’ I wasn't somebody's wife. I wasn’t in a Western begging them not to fight and kill each other. Those were pretty much the roles – I did play any number of gun molls and dumb blondes prior to that. It was a chance to play a woman that was smart and up there with the boys, capable and on the level of all of these professionals – and that did have an impact because, again, a lot of women stopped me and they’d tell me, I was inspired by Cinnamon to do this and this. And they'd tell me their life story in the supermarket, and that's good. For me, I find that rewarding as well.
Have you kept up with the Tom Cruise film series at all?
No. In fact, I've not seen any one of them. It had nothing to do with what we did. We were a team. It was a team show. This was for Cruise, and I couldn't fault it. Paramount set out to make money on a property they owned, and they did. I had no quarrel with that, and as such, has nothing to do with me.
You continue to be very busy. What keeps you excited about going to work?
I love it. I just love the fun of it. The fun and the challenge, I'm always interested in,”Oh, what would I do about that? How about that?” I spend time at the Actor's Studio – I still am a member. I teach. I've been teaching at a private class for young actors. I feel like it's something to hand down. I've done two plays this year - one was written for me- and had nice runs in both of them, directed two plays and actually did two films, so it's been just swell! Who would have thought? I'm just pleased. And I don't have a complaint in the world about this career that I've had and how it started so well. That was a great launch that I had with “Mission,” and I value it and everything since in terms of work.