Weird old title sequences: Mission: Impossible (1966-73 + 1988-90)

An iconic title sequence that never repeated for a show that always did

Mission: Impossible

After last week’s expedition into the merely silly, time to hit a genuine classic of a title sequence with Mission: Impossible. The 60s was a time when everyone went spy-crazy. You could barely switch on the TV at times, it seemed, and not see a spy series of some kind, whether it was Danger Man, The Man From UNCLE, The Champions, Man in a Suitcase, Espionage, The Avengers, The Prisoner, I, Spy, Get Smart, or any of the numerous others. Each of these needed its own niche to survive – hell, look at The Wild, Wild West – and Mission: Impossible, which lasted an incredible seven seasons, found one that worked for it very well: the spy heist.

Here, accompanied by the award winning iconic theme tune by Lalo Schifrin, is Mission: Impossible‘s equally iconic title sequence – the format remained the same every week, but each time the title sequence was adjusted to include the highlights of that episode, so you’d have to guess how everything fit together. Now this is how to rack up tension.

The basic idea of Mission: Impossible was simple: each week, the leader of the so-called “Impossible Missions Force” (Steven Hill in season 1, but replaced by Peter Graves from season 2. The orthodox Hill repeatedly missed late Friday filming to take time off for the Sabbath, which annoyed the line producer no end) would head off somewhere, such as a shop or a funfair, and after a cryptic exchange with the owner, would be given a recording in which a faceless boss tasked him with a seemingly impossible mission, after which the recording would self-destruct.

Hill or Graves would then go back to his HQ, devise a cunning plan to achieve the mission and then choose which of the talented members of his team he’d need to complete the mission.

Usually, he’d pick:

  • Martin Landau or Leonard Nimoy, who played actor/magician/impressionists
  • Barbara Bain, Lynda Day George or Lesley Ann Warren, who were actress/seducers
  • Peter Lupus, who was a champion weight lifter
  • Greg Morris, who was an engineering genius.

However, there would often be additional guest team members with specific skills, such as safe cracking, who showed up only for single episodes.

The con
The team selected, the cunning plan would then get executed. The niche of Mission: Impossible, however, wasn’t spying in the same way as James Bond, I, Spy or The Man From UNCLE spied: in fact, having been inspired by the movie Topkapi and the book The Big Con, M:I was actually closer to Leverage and Hustle since these spies were essentially con artists, setting up heists designed to fool their enemy into thinking one thing was happening when actually, something completely different was happening – although since the plan usually resulted in their ‘mark’ being killed by his own people at the end of the con, these were essentially assassinations by proxy as well.

Typically, Hill or Grave’s cunning plans involved

  • either Martin Landau or Leonard Nimoy wearing a rubber musk that miraculously made him look like someone completely different
  • Barbara Bain/Lynda Day George/Lesley Ann Warren somehow managing to make every man she needed to become overwhelmingly interested in her
  • Peter Lupus carrying some heavy things or beating people up, and
  • Greg Morris sabotaging some machinery or building a clever gizmo while cunningly disguised as the only black guy in the entire East European Soviet Union country they’d infiltrated that week.

And that was pretty much the formula, every week: recorded message, team selection, team briefing, mission, then successful conclusion. Season five did mix things up a little, when the focus moved away from spies to organised crime in the US, but that switched back for season six. Rarely was there any characterisation or background given to any of the cast – series creator and producer Bruce Geller even vetoed attempts by writers to give the characters backgrounds.

Nevertheless, the show was massively popular and lasted a whole seven seasons before it was cancelled. You can buy it on DVD and the first episode is on YouTube, though.

The revival
Eventually, back in the 80s, when the writers strike was in full flow, someone thought it might be a good idea to resurrect Mission: Impossible since there was a big pile of scripts that could be reused there and it could be filmed on the cheap in Australia. So ABC brought back Peter Graves as Jim Phelps, as well as Greg Morris’s real-life son Phil (and Lynda Day George and Greg Morris himself for one episode), Cover Up‘s Antony Hamilton, V‘s Jane Badler and sundry other not very famous actors to resurrect the series.

Although very similar to the original in a lot of ways, the moratorium on characterisation was removed and the original, small IMF team was expanded so that there were hints that other teams were out there doing the same thing. It also got a bit sci-fi at times, with one episode even featuring a gadget that could record dreams.

All the same, it didn’t rate well, given it was up against The Cosby Show, and died after two series. It still had relatively cool title sequence though.

It’s not available on DVD, but you can watch the first ep on YouTube.

Diagnosis Murder
It’s worth mentioning here, incidentally, that Barbara Bain actually resurrected her Mission: Impossible character, Cinammon Carter, for a 1997 episode of Dick Van Dyke’s Diagnosis Murder, Discards, which also featured a couple of other stars of 60s spy series (Patrick Macnee of The Avengers, Robert Culp of I, Spy) as well as Phil Morris from the Mission: Impossible revival. The IMF even gets a mention. Enjoy!


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.