Monday, September 14, 2009

Steven Hill -- Impossible to Work With

Rick's new poll on your favorite Mission Impossible character got me thinking of the actor who played the leader of the group in this show's first season, Steven Hill, who portrayed Dan Briggs. Steven Hill is probably best remembered for his role as Adam Schiff in the first 10 seasons of Law and Order. Events surrounding Hill's hiring and firing from Mission Impossible included religious issues, ego trips, a studio sale, Lucille Ball, and a ladder.

Steven Hill is an actor who shot himself in the foot and derailed what could have been a major career. He was a founding member of Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio and was considered by many to be the finest actor of his generation, which included fellow founding members of the Actors Studio, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. But his tendency to believe that his interpretation of a role could not be improved upon, led to many disruptive arguments with writers and directors; he was even dubbed "the Director killer". Despite his reputation he landed a role in the Broadway hit "Mister Roberts" and later appeared as Sigmund Freud in the 1961 play "A Far Country". It was during the run of this play that Hill made a decision that would determine the course of his career. "You are a Jew", a line delivered in the play by Kim Stanley awoke in Hill a need to reevaluate the tenets of Judaism and eventually he adopted an Orthodox Jewish way of life. Bruce Geller the producer of Mission Impossible was so determined to have Hill portray Dan Briggs that he agreed to Hill's demand that he didn't have to work on the Sabbath, from sunset Friday evening to sunset Saturday evening. This meant that Hill could leave the set at sunset even if he was in the middle of a scene. Production costs began to increase because of the necessary changes required to adjust to Hill's absence. The production team wanted him ousted, but faced Geller's objections. And Geller had the approval of Lucille Ball head of the production company, Desilu. But Geller's tolerance had its limits. During the filming of a scene which required Hill to climb a ladder, he stated adamantly that he would not do so and proceeded to walk off the set. At first he was suspended, but when he came back to the show his role had been diminished to just three scenes. In the meantime Gulf+Western bought Desilu and Lucille Ball no longer had a say in Hill's future. As Hill became increasingly difficult to work with Geller's patience ran out. The plan was to replace Hill and his character Dan Briggs with Peter Graves as Jim Phelps. Hill didn't know about this decision until he read it in one of the Hollywood trade papers.

After the Mission Impossible debacle, Hill gave up acting and retreated to a Jewish community in upstate New York. He didn't act again for 10 years.


  1. Wow sazball I alwys wondered why Hill left Mission Impossible, thanks for this imformative blog.

  2. And then he was in that one show about cops and lawyers for a season. Or ten.

    It's a shame that Hill was so hard to work with. He's a good actor, and he could have done so much. Great blog, saz!

  3. Thanks, Saz, for a highly informative blog about one of our favorite TV shows! I had heard about the religious issues, but not the rest of the rest of the story. My wife and I began watching M:I again with the Season 2 DVD set and finished Season 3 a couple of weeks ago (that's the classic cast configuration, I think). So now, we're watching Season 1 and what a difference! Through two episodes and a sneak peek at the third, Martin Landau is not a regular cast member, but a guest star. Briggs learns about his mission on the back of a business card on in one episode, instead of hearing about it via tape or film (the card still his hand...which doesn't seem to hurt). And thus far, guest stars have played a major role as members of the team (e.g., Wally Cox in the pilot as a safecracker). But the biggest difference is Steven Hill as Briggs. He's more intense than Peter Graves's Jim Phelps and cracks this little smile from time to time, as if marveling at the cleverness of his plan. It's jarring after two years of Mr. Phelps, but it still works. We're looking forward to watching how the show evolved into what became its classic formula.

  4. I've been watching Law & Order from the beginning, and knew Briggs had been cast then turfed from Mission Impossible. I had heard he was a difficult person to work with but WoW !

    As Adam Schiff he strikes as a rather impatient fellow whose always ready to have somebody else "take a plead" or "make a deal"

    He must have been a pain to others too if none of his castmates in MI stood up for him.

  5. Actor's Studio actors were an intense breed. Taught to feel their roles and connect emotionally with the characters they play.

  6. Steven Hill was great as Briggs. They should have bitten their tongues and heeded to his idiosyncratic ways

    1. That's just ridiculous. What was he - God? The whole production should cater to him and to hell with anyone else? So he was better than Graves. He's not the only talented actor that got kicked of projects because they thought they were too good to work with everyone else.
      Fans who are on the outside and only want instant, selfish gratification are childish - just like he was. He miscalculated his worth.
      Bet after years of no jobs he learned that a series is a team effort.

  7. Dan was much better than Jim. I'm my opinion...

  8. Just to qualify some of the details provided above, Lee Strasberg was not the Founder of the Actor's Studio. It was founded by Elia Kazan and Robert Lewis. And Marlon Brando DID NOT study with Lee Strasberg. He hated the guy. Kazan and Lewis founded it as a studio for the working actor. Marlon was doing Streetcar on Broadway, and barely went to class. Steven Hill was also part of that agenda. Actually, He and Marlon were in their first Broadway play together. Likewise, Monty Clift did not attend the Actors Studio after Strasberg took over when Bobby Lewis and Kazan went in different directions. Kazan hung around for awhile with Strasberg, but film duties were more dominant for him. Marlon Brando studied with Stella Adler, and no one else. The whole misnomer about the genesis of the Actors Studio has understandably maintained this erroneous narrative. Slowly but surely it's being corrected.