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Spies on Television & Radio ~
A New Interview with Mission: Impossible’s Peter Lupus

By Eddie Lucas

Cover - Close-Ups

Editor’s Note ~

On October 22, 2007, BearManor Media issued Close-Ups: Conversations with Our TV Favorites by Eddie Lucas. According to the publisher ~

As indicated by the title, Close-Ups is more than a collection of interviews. Lucas brings to the page exclusive, new one-on-one conversations with some of the most beloved stars of classic TV. Through these honest and entertaining conversations, Close-Ups preserves for history the thoughts, feelings and insights of some of the last surviving talents of the most beloved shows in television history – like Barbara Billingsley, Tony Dow, Kaye Ballard, Alice Ghostley, and Jon Provost.

With the gracious permission of BearManor, Spywise.net asked Eddie if he would share an abridged version of the interview he conducted with Mission: Impossible star Peter Lupus at this website.

Of course, Eddie and his publisher hope you’ll see this sample of what you can find in Close-Ups and order a copy to read the entire discussion. We hope the same!

Order information is at the end of this interview.

Peter Lupus (Mission: Impossible – Willy Armitage, 1966-1973)

If you take tall, dark, and handsome, then add muscular, you pretty much have just described actor Peter Lupus. Lupus played character strongman Willy Armitage on the popular CBS action/adventure series Mission: Impossible.

The series followed the adventures of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) – an elite group of secret government agents, spies, and specialists who were given a nearly “impossible” mission to complete every week.

Along with Lupus, other cast members included team leader Stephen Hill as Dan Briggs [season one], and Peter Graves, who subsequently replaced Hill as team boss Jim Phelps for the remainder of the series.

Martin Landau (Master of Disguise Rollin Hand), femme-fatale Barbara Bain (fashion model Cinnamon Carter), and Greg Morris (electronics expert Barney Collier) rounded out the cast. Lupus and Morris were the only two original characters to stay with the series from its premiere in 1966 until the series ended its seven-year run in 1973.

The series was immensely popular during its initial prime-time run and can still be seen in as many as 35 countries around the world.

EL – Tell me how Mission: Impossible came about.

The IMF team, with (clockwise from top) Barbara Bain, Peter Graves, Martin Landau, Greg Morris, and Peter Lupus.

I had just finished filming in Rome and we were going to Northern Italy to film this pirate picture. About a week before we left Rome, my agent called and told me that I needed to come back to California so they could talk to me about a possible series at Desilu. I said, “Jack, are you crazy? I have three years left on my contract. Why would I want to come back there and do a series that may not go anywhere?” He said, “Well, look at it as a free trip back.”

So I agreed. I had some time before the next film started, so I went back. I went into Desilu and Lucille Ball was there, and Bruce Geller, who created the show, and four or five other people. So I walked in there in a sport coat and a skin tight shirt and took my coat off and said hello to everybody, and they were all looking at each other. And I’m thinking, “They must like me. Oh my God. They’re gonna offer me the part and I can’t take it.”

So after that meeting, Bruce ended up following me out and he told me that he really wanted me to do this part. So to be polite, I told him to talk with my agent and work it all out. But I called my agent and told him that I was not going to leave my contract to try a series that may not go. And he said, “Well, take my word for it. This could be a blockbuster. I’ve read a lot of scripts and this really reads right.”

So I said, “Okay, but ask for more money than they want to pay.” So he did, and they agreed. Lucille Ball ended up okaying the deal. So I went back to Rome and Jack worked it out where I would finish the film and then I could get out of the agreement. So I came back, and in November of ’65, we filmed the pilot. In fact at the time they filmed it, it was the most expensive pilot they ever filmed in Hollywood. It went three or four days over the budget. But we finished it, and it went on the air in September of ’66.

The ratings were okay at first, not fantastic, and people didn’t quite understand it. People thought they were dumb, but it was all written that way. It was written so you were left at a suspenseful time right before the commercials. So the sponsors loved it because nobody left. They watched the commercials so they wouldn’t miss one frame of it. It was all timed that way.

A lot of people don’t know this, but at the end of the first year, we were actually not penciled in for the next season. By chance, at the end of a board meeting, Mr. Paley, who ran CBS said, “I just want to thank you fellows for coming up with my wife’s and my all time favorite show, Mission: Impossible.” So guess what? We were inked in for the next year, and we ended up getting nominated for fourteen Emmys, and the rest is history. We ended up being in 108 countries at one time. We’re still in 30 or 35 countries today around the world.

EL – What was your impression of Lucille Ball?

She was a fantastic lady and a lot of people don’t know what a business woman she was. You know, when she did Mission, they wanted her to renew her contract for three more years on The Lucy Show. They had already worked out the money, but she wanted a bonus. So she basically said, “Here’s the deal. I’ll renew, but I want you to finance three pilots. You pay for them, and you get first choice. If you want ‘em, you get ‘em, but if you don’t want ‘em, I can take ‘em anywhere I want and I own them.” So CBS agreed, and do you know what the three series were?

EL – No. Tell me.

Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, and Mannix.

EL – Three very successful shows!

How’s that for a blockbuster! Those are the three she picked.

EL – Did Lucy have much interaction with the show when it was being produced?

No, not really. Bruce Geller kind of held the reins the first three years, and he was a real stickler about getting everything right. He wanted to make sure that everything on the show was possible to do; that everything on there could be done.

For instance, in the pilot we had to smuggle somebody into a vault in the Caribbean that contained these atomic bomb heads that were hidden in there, and our mission was to try to get them out. It was impossible to break into the safe, but we found out you could break out if you got locked in. So I had these two big cases of jewelry, and we asked the hotel if we could leave them in the safe overnight. So we got a safecracking expert, played by Wally Cox, who could break out of there if we could get him in. So we put him in one of the cases to smuggle him in.

Those cases weighed like sixty pounds empty, so they wouldn’t fall apart. And on camera, he had to be able to break out from the inside. So he was in one of the cases, and I tried to pick him up, and it was like I was lop-sided. He was about 125 or 130 pounds. So I was carrying 200 pounds in one case and sixty in the other. It’s not possible.

So I told them to put some lead weights in the other one so they would balance out. So Bruce came down to the set and said, “Peter, the shot is you have to carry both of these suitcases into the vault without breaking away, so we can see what happens with him getting out.” So I said that I’d try it and I did. I was able to carry the two-hundred pounds, but I had to make it look like it wasn’t that hard.

EL – So Wally Cox really was in one of the cases you were carrying on camera?

He absolutely was. They didn’t want to do a cutaway. In fact, it took two days to shoot it and the first day we shot it, when they called lunch, I set the cases down, and everybody started running for lunch, and I hear this tapping, and I said, “Oh my God, Wally’s still in there.” So I had to go back and let him out. (Laughing.)

EL – How would you describe the character of Willy?

Willy was a secret agent, but what they needed from him were certain feats of strength that you couldn’t get from anyone else. It took strength to do certain things, and it helped make the mission successful. The character turned out to be very popular with people, and I didn’t know this at the time, but Willy was only originally written in the first episode to make it work. But when they tested it, he was so popular, and got such a positive reaction, they decided to write him in as a regular character.

EL – You must have gotten a lot of fan mail.


EL – Did you have time to read any of it?

Oh yeah. I tried to read everything, I just couldn’t answer it all. A lot of people were always asking me about vitamins, and nutrition and exercise. In fact one letter I got, and I wish I could remember the name of this fellow, but it’s so hard to save all those letters. But at the time he was a freshman in high school, and he wanted to get bigger because he wanted to play high school football. So I wrote him back and put him on a muscle mass increasing workout with the diet and the supplements.

Anyway, about nine or ten years later, I get a letter, and it said, “You may not remember me, but I wrote to you years ago”, and he sent me a copy of the letter with the program that I had written out for him when he was in high school. And he said, “I would like for you to be my guest in two weeks when we play the Los Angeles Rams. I’m the second string linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys.”

EL – Unbelievable!

Can you imagine? He wanted to send me a ticket, but unfortunately I was going out of town and couldn’t go. But I really felt good to think of this little kid trying to get big enough to play high school football, and ends up playing professional.

EL – What a great story!

It was kind of a thrill to read that.

EL – Peter Graves was not in the first season of Mission.

Right. He replaced Stephen Hill. Do you remember Stephen Hill from Law & Order?

EL – Sure. That’s one of my favorite shows. Why was he replaced?

Well, what happened was, Stephen had become an Orthodox Jew, and he had to leave at four o’clock to be home before sundown, and he didn’t do anything at all until sundown the next day.

So here’s what happened. It was about the third or fourth show, and we’ve got over 200 people on the set for this scene, and at four o’clock on the dot, his agent walked in front of the camera and said, “Mr. Hill has to leave now.” And they left in the middle of the scene and walked off the set.

EL – I’m sure that didn’t go over well.

Here’s the thing though, Eddie. It was in his contract that he had to leave at four o’clock and everybody knew it. It just so happened that day it was in the middle of a shot, and it was just chaos. So they kept trying to shoot around him to honor his contract, but they finally decided that they just couldn’t live with it. On Fridays, we used to shoot until twelve or one o’clock in the morning and catch up for the week and he couldn’t be there. So by the end of the first year, he kind of wanted to leave, and they kind of wanted him to leave, so they let him out of his contract, so he was happy.

He was a wonderful actor. I enjoyed working with him and I learned a lot from him. He was from the Actors Studio. He was from the time of Marlon Brando, James Dean, George C. Scott, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Martin Landau. You name ‘em. They were all in that era. He loved his craft, and he was wonderful at it. He’s a good man. Very solid in his convictions.

EL – So that’s how Peter Graves ended up coming on the show.

Yes. Peter came in the second year and stayed till the seventh. Greg Morris and I were the only two cast members that did the whole seven years. Marty and Barbara left at the end of the third year.

EL – Why did they leave?

It was money. They had promised Marty more money and they had a change of who was running the television department at Paramount, and they had a new regime that came in and they said, “We can’t afford to give you that kind of money, and we’re not going to.” And it became sort of a moral thing with Marty. He said, “You know, you made a promise, and that’s it.” And they did the same thing with Barbara. It wasn’t Marty and Barbara’s fault. They weren’t given what they were supposed to get, so they both left.

EL – Well, you can’t blame them for that.

No, not at all. Marty had a very original deal that I’ve never heard of before or since in television. He signed a year to year contract because he didn’t know if he wanted to keep doing the show.

EL – That’s unheard of.

Yes. He could leave. Barbara got out of hers because she just didn’t come to work. She said, “Hey, you promised me this. You’re not going to do this. From now on, count me out.” And I want to tell you, when they left, it really hurt the show. It came back, but it took a while. They were very important to the show.

Marty and I became very close. Marty comes to our house every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I see Barbara at the Actors Studio on Fridays when I go over there. And Greg passed away about a few years ago [Morris succumbed to brain and lung cancer in 1996].

EL – What were your hours like?

Normally you’d go in about seven o’clock for wardrobe and make up to be on the set by eight or eight-thirty ready to film. If you were going out on location, you usually had to be at the studio by four or five a.m.

Speaking of being on location, here’s a funny story. One day I was shooting up in Hollywood Hills about four blocks from my house, and because of the restrictions of insurance and the unions, I had to go clear back to Paramount to get into a limo so they could bring me back home and I was only four blocks from my house.

EL – That’s kind of crazy.

It was a union thing. You had to be driven from the studio by a union member. But when you were on location, you wouldn’t get back to the studio until probably seven or eight o’clock at night. Sometimes later. Our normal day was from seven in the morning until seven or eight o’clock at night. It was a tough show to shoot. We always went over budget. You put a lot of hours in there whether you’re actually filming or not. You have to be there.

EL – How many days did it take to complete an episode?

Seven working days.

EL – Some people I’ve spoken with said that their shows had a lot of rewrites and some didn’t have any at all. What about Mission?

We had rewrites up until the time you got in front of the camera. They never really finished writing a scene until you were actually ready to shoot it. One time Bruce was watching a scene, and we had been to make up, wardrobe, and rehearsed, and he changed it. He didn’t do that a lot, but I’m telling you, he was a stickler. It had to be right.

That’s one reason why it was such a success. To tell you how popular it was, I went over to Japan in ’74 for the Department of Defense to see the service men that were coming back from the front. The first day I was there, I asked the driver to take me to a department store, and I got out at one to look at something in the window, and three or four people started gathering around me looking up at me, and pretty soon the sidewalk was full, then the whole street came to a stop, and finally the police arrived. When they saw who it was, they asked me not to go out during the day anymore because it caused riots. (Laughs.)

They just loved Willy. They had a press conference and as a surprise they brought in the guy who dubbed my voice on the show in Japanese. What a great voice. He was about five foot eight and really husky. He told the interpreter to tell me that he appreciated my supporting his family for the last seven years.

EL – Are there any episodes of the show that really stick out in your mind?

A lot of them I don’t remember, but there was one where I had to rescue Lee Meriwether. There was a scene where I had to slip into this place and get her out through this big chimney. I was on some kind of rope platform thing that had an automatic button where I could go up and down. She had to go up it, and then I had to go up it so we could climb out of the chimney and escape.

So I worked this thing to take us clear up to the top. So they had tested it up to 2500 pounds to make sure it was safe. Well, we did one rehearsal, came down, and then got ready to shoot. The camera was at the bottom shooting up at an angle. And it was about thirty feet up to the top.

So we start shooting, and about halfway up, I felt this plastic cable stretch, and I thought, “Crap. What’s going on?” And just then I fell and barely missed the camera. Then Lee fell on top of me. I thought I had broken my neck, and she thought she had broken her back. And you talk about 9-11? They sealed this set and wouldn’t let anyone on or off.

Then they brought in the medics and took us to the hospital. Within an hour, I felt fine, but the doctor told me that if I hadn’t been working out, she would have absolutely broken my neck. I wouldn’t be here.” And if she hadn’t fallen on me, she absolutely would have broken her back.

EL – Was she okay?

Yes. I never went totally unconscious, but she was out. I went back to work that day, because I had to go back and do some other shots but of course she didn’t. So they had to rebuild the whole thing on another set, but this time they only built it up about a third of the way. But she had to come back because we had to film the scene again. So just approaching it, she got tears in her eyes, she was so afraid. It was just a horrible experience. We got through it though.

EL – Those are the kinds of things that happen and nobody ever knows about. That’s part of why I wanted to do this book. These kinds of things are interesting to fans.

Right, because we only show what really works. There was this one time when I was driving a motorcycle up in the hills doing a getaway shot, and all I had to do was go past the camera. I didn’t want to wear a helmet because it was just a run by shot, but I’ll never forget Wes Eckerd. He was our wardrobe guy, and he came over in front of the motorcycle and said, “Peter, I’ve been in this business for thirty years and I’ve seen so a lot of accidents. We’re up here in the hills, and anything could happen. So put this helmet on, or you’re gonna have to run over me.”

So I balked a little, but I put it on, got on the motorcycle, drove past the camera, and wouldn’t you know, I lost control of the thing! I went over a cliff and down a sixty foot embankment and ended up hitting my head on a rock that caved in the helmet. I’m rolling down, and I got my foot caught in a bush. Then the motorcycle came down and landed about a foot away from me, went over the top of me, and then burst into flames when it hit the bottom.

EL – Talk about a close call.

You’re not kiddin’. There was also another time when we were filming out in the ocean at San Pedro. We went pretty far out, and in the scene, I had to dive off the boat and into the ocean to get away because a couple of guys were trying to kill me on the boat. It was absolutely freezing and the water was like ice, and I didn’t really realize that. The stunt men, who were going to do the far away shots, where you couldn’t see their faces on camera, were dumping cold water on themselves to get used to the water.

I had been below deck because I had gotten seasick and wasn’t feeling good. It was on one of those great big PT boats, the one like John Wayne turned into his yacht. I had gotten so sick that I just wanted to get the shot done. I didn’t want anyone dumping cold water on me, I just wanted to jump in and get it over with. So I dove in, and went too deep and it immediately felt like somebody had a chain around my chest and was pulling it tight. So when I finally came up, I couldn’t even breathe.

And then I hear this bing, bing, bing. And they had this sharpshooter on top of the boat, and he was trying to kill a shark that was about fifty yards away and was coming right after me. My stunt double had his wetsuit on, and he sensed that something was wrong, so he dove in and swam to me. I rested my arms on his shoulders, and I started getting my breath back again. So he and I both got back to the boat alright, and believe it or not, they did get the scene.

EL – Did you do a lot of your own stunts or were there restrictions against that?

There were, but I would try, and if I could do them, I did them. But after about the first year, I started getting to know the stunt men and I realized that I was taking jobs away from them. So I said, “You guys do ‘em, and I’ll do the close ups.”

EL – Tell me about Barbara Bain.

She’s a dream. There’s so many things about her. She was such a great mom. She called her kids every hour of the day to make sure they were okay, and they had two maids, one for each of the kids. And she had to talk to each of them each day. She was another one that was very professional.

They would bring the girls in an hour earlier to do the hair and all, and if she had a six o’clock call, she’d get there at five to make sure she’d be on the set by seven. Nobody ever waited for her. She was always prepared, and a lot of people don’t remember, but for the three years she was on the show, she won the Best Actress Emmy every year. Three years in a row! If she’d been on five years, she might have won five! She was just a doll to be with. As a matter of fact, she and I did an autograph show at the Hilton last year, and she and I got to sit by each other, and we had a ball.

EL – What was Peter Graves like to work with?

He’s a terrific guy. He was always on time, always knew his lines, and easy to be around. I remember the most angry I saw him in six years was this time when we were brought in at five o’clock in the morning to go on location, and at seven o’clock that night, they had still not used him in a scene. So he finally went up to the second assistant director and said, “Look. I haven’t done one scene all day. I would appreciate it very much if you guys would get your schedule a little more organized.” And that was about as mad as he got! (Laughs.)

EL – You and Greg Morris had a lot of scenes together.

Yes. We were super buddies. Once we were on The Mike Douglas Show, and we were talking about all the tight spots we’d been in together like holes and tunnels and the backs of trucks. And I said, “Well, Mike, it looks like if Morris and I are in one more tight spot together, we’re going to have to get engaged.” We both started laughing and the audience was just laughing and laughing. We were always so serious on the show that they had never really seen us out of character and they were enjoying finally seeing us smiling.

For the first couple of seasons, Bruce Geller asked us not to do any talk shows. He said that he wanted people to believe that these characters were real. So I didn’t do any shows for the first couple of years.

EL – Did you save anything from the show?

Unfortunately, no. I wish I had. I don’t even have a script. I remember one time when we were shooting down in Hollywood and they had our portable trailers out there, and I went out to do a shot and when I came back, my script was gone. So about two hours later, some lady comes up and says, “Peter, will you sign this for me?” And she handed me my script! She snuck it out of the doggone trailer and she got so excited she wanted me to sign it!

EL – Did you sign it?

Yes. I said, “Okay, sure.” (Laughs.) I had a lot of missing things, missing ties, missing everything. Everything was a memento to someone, so I didn’t save a lot. (Laughing.)

EL – What did you think about the Mission: Impossible movies?

All of the original cast was supposed to be in the first one, and what was supposed to happen was, they get a hold of Peter Graves, and they want him to get the group together for this special mission. So he’s got to round up the group. He finds Barbara owning a modeling agency, and he finds Marty Landau doing some kind of a mind reading act in the circus or someplace, and Greg owned an electronics store, and I owned a chain of Golden Arch Health Clubs. So it worked in all of our backgrounds. So we’re in the apartment with Peter Graves, and he says, “By the way, I’m bringing in one more guest expert.” And of course that’s Tom Cruise.

EL – What a storyline!

Yes! So we go out on the mission and get in trouble and get caught. I remember telling the writers to make sure that I didn’t get killed because I want to do the sequel. (Laughs.) So Cruise has to bring in some of his other people to rescue us and make the mission work.

I thought it was fabulous, but what it turned into was a sort of James Bond, one man Mission Impossible. I heard that Barbara was taller than Cruise in heels, so he nixed that, and I’m 6’4, and Peter’s 6’3, and Greg’s 6’3, so he probably would have gotten lost in the middle of us. They were going to give us all two-hundred fifty thousand dollars for four weeks work. We were all to get the same thing. It was a Favored Nations contract. But it didn’t work out and that’s the way it went.

EL – That would have made such a great movie, seeing the old gang together again, working on a mission.

Yes. Everybody was very upset about the original cast members not being in it.

EL – Did you end up seeing it?

Yes. TV Guide asked me to review it for them, so I went to the screening and I saw it. And I said that I thought it was going to be a hit.

People loved that show. It was one of the all-time hit shows in the world of television. In fact in Japan, in the past forty years, it was shown three different times in prime time as a new show. By the way, this is our fortieth anniversary of when we started the show in ‘66. It’s amazing.

Eddie Lucas is a baby boomer who fell in love with classic television during his infancy. A writer, educator, and vintage TV historian, he lives in central Florida.

Close-Ups: Conversations with Our TV Favorites is available for purchase through these on-line merchants ~

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Excerpt and book cover copyright © 2007 BearManor Media