Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Lynda Day George Made it Easy to Watch "Mission: Impossible"

I've never enjoyed the Tom Cruise "Mission: Impossible" movie series because I don't think they ever truly understood what made original television series (which ran on CBS from 1966 to 1973) so special.  Rather than lending itself to big blockbuster action, the TV series was actually a cerebral, intricately plotted, origami-like brain teaser involving a team of spies who were, in essence, government-sponsored con artists.  Their job was to mount an elaborate sting operation whose purpose is to fool either a ruthless foreign dictator, or a stateside mobster, to behave in a way that reveals a piece of information that the agents need in order to topple a foreign power or an organized crime empire, or cause those villains to inadvertently demonstrate an aspect of themselves, that they have skillfully hidden from others, whose public revelation will cause them to lose their power or influence.  Most episodes involved the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) setting up the sting, successfully executing it, dealing with any complications that arise, and then slipping away unnoticed.  We took delight in watching the skill and precision of the IMF agents as they made the villains look like fools.  It wasn't a show that warranted having big action set pieces, which is why the movie series has never really captured what made the TV show so special.

What's interesting about the TV series was how the regular characters were written as mere ciphers without any real backstory or recognizable character traits.  They were intentionally presented as stoic figures in order to allow them to easily slip into the identities they would have to impersonate for each episode.  It wasn't about following the trials and tribulations of the personal lives of the regular characters.  However, because of mostly effective casting, we still liked and cared about the IMF agents due to the innate skill and charm of the actors who played them.  They were incredibly cool individuals who you admired due to their calm and internal strength to remain assured even in the most challenging situation.  I think the show was successful in the turbulent and uncertain 1960s and 1970s because there was no sense of doubt with the members of the IMF.  I think people back then responded to watching individuals who were completely certain that what they were doing was right because they tired of watching the sort of characters filled with self-indulgent self-doubt they were already surrounded by every day.  There were many regular actors across the course of "Mission: Impossible's" long run, but I have to admit my favorite had to be beautiful blonde Lynda Day George as IMF disguise expert Casey.

George joined the show in the 6th season when Lesley Ann Warren departed from the show after only appearing on it for just one season.  (Warren, in-turn, had replaced the show's original leading lady, Barbara Bain as Cinnamon Carter, who had left the show in 1969 along with her husband Martin Landau due to a contractual dispute.)  Warren never really felt at-ease with the fact that her character, IMF Agent Dana Lambert, was meant to be archetypal and not someone who would continue to develop over time.  She would have preferred playing a constantly evolving personality.  Her replacement Lynda Day George appeared to have no such issues with the series and seemed to thrive at playing the different personalities and aliases that Casey would assume while working with the IMF.

Casey's role in the series was unique in that she was both the leading lady and the disguise expert on the show.  Prior to that, Martin Landau as Rollin Hand, and later Leonard Nimoy as his replacement Paris, were the disguise experts, with Bain's Cinnamon and Warren's Dana providing separate distaff interest on the show.  Combining both elements of disguise expert and leading lady into the character of Casey allowed Lynda Day George to take on a more proactive role than some of the previous women in the series, who had good parts to play but sometimes were relegated into serving as eye-candy in the IMF's missions.  In instances where Casey had to don a latex face mask and impersonate another individual, she had to study that person's history, personality and mannerisms in order to effectively portray them.  Or, if she was helping another IMF agent prepare to impersonate someone else, she had to help develop their disguise and coach their performance.  That meant that Casey was taking an active role in planning the sting operations and was not just an agent who merely showed up and took orders from leader Jim Phelps (Peter Graves).

We never really learn much about Casey during her tenure on the original series, much less whether "Casey" was her first or last name.  In the later "Mission: Impossible" revival series in 1989, George reappeared in the role.  We learn that her full name is supposed to be Lisa Casey (this bit of retcon was done to avoid confusion with another female regular character on the new show already named Casey), that she had retired from the IMF and had become a stage director, and that the last time she worked with the IMF was 9 years earlier in 1980 when she and Jim Phelps worked in Hong Kong to put away a dangerous international drug dealer.  This suggests that Casey worked for the IMF for 9 years, from 1971 to 1980, longer than any of the other leading ladies on the show.  It was clear while watching the original series that Casey was someone with a theater arts and performing background because she occasionally described how she would study the regional dialects and accents of someone she was preparing to impersonate, and was skillful at makeup and disguise artistry.

We sensed Casey was a decent individual in the 1971 episode "Encounter" where Casey is preparing to impersonate Lois Stoner (Elizabeth Ashley) the alcoholic wife of a corrupt lawyer working for the mob.  As Casey describes Lois Stoner's sad life and marriage, she expresses a level of compassion for Lois' plight that you normally wouldn't have expected from someone who must remain an objective, dispassionate individual in order to successfully accomplish her missions.  When Casey has successfully assumed Lois' identity, and the IMF agents are preparing to transport the real, unconscious Lois to a medical facility where she can dry out, Casey reminds them to "take good care of her" which demonstrates Casey's concern over how the IMF's sting may end up affecting Lois' life.

I think the reason I always liked Lynda Day George as Casey was the quality of assuredness and internal stillness that George brought to the role which made Casey an intelligent, courageous, clever and skillful individual.  She was a genuine heroine because of her quick witted thinking and initiative, and not necessarily because she was engaging in acts of violence by fighting with the enemy with her fists or with firearms.  The episode that I think best demonstrated the qualities that Lynda Day George's Casey brought to "Mission: Impossible" was in the 7th and last season's episode "Kidnap," directed by series star Peter Graves.  In the episode, Graves' Jim Phelps and Barney Collier (Greg Morris) are on vacation together when Jim is kidnapped by mobsters who the IMF had fleeced the previous season by cleaning out their underworld casino.  The lead mobster Andrew Metzger (John Ireland) wants the IMF to use their talents to help him retrieve a letter locked in a bank safe deposit box owned by a former associate Mitchell Connally (Charles Drake) who is threatening to turn the letter, which could incriminate Metzger in a murder, over to authorities in exchange for an immunity deal.  For Jim's safe return, the IMF must bring the letter to Metzger before Connally presents it to prosecutors.

On short notice, Barney rounds up Casey and Willy (Peter Lupus) in order to lay the groundwork to retrieve the letter, save Jim, and still bring Metzger to justice.  Casey arrives at the bank, pretending to be a socialite who just moved to Los Angeles from Fort Worth, and rents a safety deposit box ostensibly to store her jewelry.  While in the bank vault housing the safety deposit boxes, Casey pretends to go into an asthma attack and scatters her jewelry across the floor.  While the bank clerk is distracted helping to gather up the jewelry, Casey uses a syringe filled with quick-set plastic to take a mold of one of the two separate locks on Connally's safe deposit box that is opened using the bank's master key.  Once she has secured a good mold of the lock, which they can use to make a copy of the key, she hides it in the pocket of her fur coat.  Casey drives to Connally's apartment, with Willy in the back of the van making a copy of the bank's master key from the plastic mold Casey made from the lock.  Casey and Willy board the descending elevator in Mitchell Connally's building at the precise time they know that Connally will have received confirmation of his immunity deal with the Government and will be leaving with agents accompanying him to retrieve the letter from the bank.

Meanwhile, Barney arrives at Connally's security apartment building pretending to inspect the elevators for safety issues.  As the elevator descends, Barney rigs the controls to cause the elevator to be stuck in between floors.  Casey pretends to be a claustrophobic who becomes hysterical at being trapped in the elevator.  She uses her feigned hysteria to feel up against Connally and finds his complementary key to open his safety deposit box in the breast pocket of his suit.  Casey finds the key, pretends to lose consciousness, while Willy (pretending to be a doctor) tends to Casey in front of Connally and the government agents.  Out of their view, Willy makes a mold impression of Connally's key and slips it back into Casey's hand.  Casey pretends to regain consciousness, goes into hysteria again and uses the opportunity to slip the key back into Connally's pocket without his ever noticing it.  Once Barney receives the signal that Casey has completed her job, Barney has the elevator resume its descent to the lobby and Casey and Willy hightail it to the bank ahead of Connally and the agents.  During their drive over, Willy creates a key from the mold impression he has made of Connally's complementary key.  Barney sabotages the car that Connally is riding in so that it's tires blow out.  He promptly picks them up in a taxi, all to give Casey enough time to return to the bank and get the letter first.

Casey returns to the bank under the guise of placing important documents into the safety deposit box she rented earlier.  She pretends to go into another asthma attack in the bank vault, causing the bank clerk to go and get water for her.  Casey uses the opportunity to find Connally's box and open it with both sets of keys that she has made.  She opens the box, briefly examines the letter, slips it into her purse, and closes the box before the clerk returns.  With the letter in her possession, she tells the clerk that she'll return tomorrow to place her documents in her box and leaves the bank.  As Casey leaves the bank, Metzger's associate Hawks (Jack Ging) who wants the letter in order to blackmail his boss, mugs Casey on the sidewalk and flees in a getaway car.  Willy and Casey attempt to give chase, to no avail.  Connally arrives later at the bank, opens his box, and finds his letter missing.  With no collateral for his immunity deal, he is arrested by the Government agents for suspicion of extortion and narcotics dealing.  Meanwhile, Barney contacts Metzger and lies that he has the letter and will arrive soon to deliver it.  Metzger gives Barney the address where he lives.  When it becomes apparent that someone other than Metzger stole the letter, Barney decides that they will still try to bargain with Metzger by forging the envelope that the letter was sealed in.

Through careful questioning and encouragement from Barney and Willy, Casey is eventually able to describe the color and size of the envelope, the name and address on it, the font used to type the address, the type of stamp used for postage, the type and color of the wax seal, and (after careful deliberation) the city and date of the postmark.  With the envelope carefully reproduced, Barney, Casey and Willy head over to Metzger's house.  They present the empty envelope to Metzger and announce that the contents of the envelope is in a safe place and will eventually be turned over to Metzger once Jim has been safely released.  Metzger takes the trio over to where Jim is being held captive.  Meanwhile, Hawks shows up with the real letter and announces his plan to blackmail Metzger.  Casey pretends to go into hysterics again and Jim uses the diversion to start a fight where he, Barney and Willy battle Metzger and Hawks and their associates and are eventually able to overpower them.  With the crisis resolved, the IMF lock Metzger and his associates into the air raid shelter that he was held in captivity as they triumphantly depart together.

The last truly great episode of "Mission: Impossible," Lynda Day George gives a fine performance and demonstrates all of the qualities that made her work as Casey so special.  In her introductory scene in this segment, where she, Barney and Willy plan how to steal Connally's letter in order to save Jim, she has a very calm, controlled, deep, and assured tone to her voice that demonstrates Casey's decisiveness and maturity.  There's no hand-wringing insecurity or nervousness to Casey at this moment because she knows Jim's life is at stake and that everyone will have to rise to the occasion in order to save him.  As Casey demonstrates how she has already been practicing how to be a pick-pocket, by stealing a photograph of Connally from Willy's suit pocket, there's no self-satisfied "cuteness" from Casey that other actresses, who would have used the moment to show-off, might have played the scene.  Casey already knows she's good at her work and doesn't have to gloat over it.

When Casey arrives at the bank, pretending to be a light-hearted Texas socialite suffering from asthma, she parodies an outdated stereotype of women who are frivolous that is sometimes portrayed in movies and television.  This is further exemplified when Casey pretends to become hysterical in the elevator at Connally's apartment in order to steal his key and make a copy of it, which is in itself a parody of the dated stereotype that assumes women are weak and vulnerable.  Because we know that Casey herself is not a frivolous individual, and isn't prone to fits of weakness or hysteria, these scenes are amusing and entertaining because we, the audience, are in on the joke with Casey of having her pretend to be somebody that she's not.  Casey, a courageous and substantial individual, is making fun (as well as taking advantage) of the weak and frivolous stereotypes that have stigmatized images of women in the media, especially at that time.  That quality of including the audience in on the enjoyment of watching the IMF stings being successfully executed through feigned play-acting is something that the Tom Cruise "Mission: Impossible" movies have never really understood.

Later, when Casey is mugged by Hawks on the street and loses the letter, she remains calm, but frustrated.  She never loses her cool even when an unexpected wrench has been thrown into the scenario.  Later, when she helps Barney and Willy forge the envelope, Casey expresses frustration at not being able to immediately recall all the details she briefly noticed on the genuine article.  But she remains calm and focused as she eventually is able to remember enough about the letter to allow Barney and Willy to forge it.  Casey's attention to detail in both her performance, and her observation of what is presented and going on around her, are what ultimately help to save Jim's life in this episode.  At the end, when Metzger and the IMF are confronted by the duplicitous Hawks, Casey has made herself so ubiquitous that, when she pretends to go into hysterics, Hawks tells her, "Hold it Blondie.  I've seen you operate.  No more chances."  Clearly, Hawks considers Casey a more formidable adversary in this episode than he does Jim, Barney and Willy.  Even though the dictates of the early 1970s prevent Casey from taking a more prominent role in the fisticuffs of the violent finale in Metzger's air raid shelter, I never felt that it short-changed Casey because she was left out of the fighting at the end.  I have never believed that, just because a heroine is involved with participating in the action set-pieces of a movie or TV show that that demonstrates she's playing a substantive role in the proceedings.  (The thankless part that Naomie Harris' Eve Moneypenny played in 2012's "Skyfall" is a good example of this.)  In this "Mission: Impossible" episode, Jim, Barney and Willy essentially played support to Casey, who did most of the legwork on this mission and carried the bulk of the action and acting on this episode.  Jim should be commended for having selected and trained a team who were so good at what they did that they were able to operate efficiently without him. 

Lynda Day George was a likeable actress in television and movies in the 1960s and 1970s.  Both before and after "Mission: Impossible," she built a long and impressive list of episodic television credits on most of the top hour-long dramatic shows.  She had key supporting roles on three of the major television miniseries of the 1970s including "Rich Man, Poor Man" (1976), "Once An Eagle" (1976), and "Roots" (1977).  She later made frequent appearances in horror and suspense thrillers, some with her husband Christopher George, including "The Day of the Animals" (1977), "Beyond Evil" (1980), "Mortuary" (1984), and the notorious slasher flick "Pieces" (1982).  In the horror films or guest starring on "Love Boat" or "Fantasy Island," George wasn't given an opportunity to truly shine due to the uninspired material.  But at her best, such as in "Mission: Impossible," Lynda Day George demonstrated impressive qualities of determination and leadership that showed what a fine actress she could be when given appropriate material and the proper level of attention.  George was always particularly good in scenes without dialogue that allowed one to pay attention to her expressive eyes, which reflected how focused and alert she was at all times.  She was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her work as Casey on "Mission: Impossible," the latter for the final season that featured the "Kidnap" episode that she carried so beautifully.  What was truly impressive about Lynda Day George on "Mission: Impossible" wasn't so much Casey's ability to impersonate individuals from varying different backgrounds, but how she made Casey an interesting and engaging person, despite her intentional lack of character development, that made you interested in Casey and curious about who this mysterious and exciting woman was. 

1 comment:

  1. As usual, a superb analysis on many levels. Thanks.

    You are exactly right in your big-picture remark: "Rather than lending itself to big blockbuster action, the TV series was actually a cerebral, intricately plotted, origami-like brain teaser involving a team of spies who were, in essence, government-sponsored con artists." There is much to love about the original, and much to dislike about the Tom Cruise versions. The worst of the new was Jim's betrayal in the first of the series. Ridiculous. Again, thanks for another great analysis.


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