Thursday, September 5, 2019

An Interview with Barbara Bain

Barbara Bain was born in Chicago and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she studied sociology and philosophy. After graduating in 1952, she moved to New York to study dance with acclaimed dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. She became interested in acting, studied with Lee Strasberg, and was cast in stage roles, including a touring company of Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night. That led to guest star roles in TV shows such as Adventures in Paradise, Perry Mason, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective. In 1966, producer Bruce Geller cast Barbara Bain as Cinnamon Carter in the hit TV series Mission: Impossible. She won three consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series. She left Mission: Impossible after three seasons and appeared in acclaimed made-for-TV films such as Goodnight, My Love (1972) and A Summer Without Boys (1973). From 1975-77, Barbara Bain starred in the science fiction TV series Space: 1999. She has continued to act in films and television and on the stage for the last four decades. She won Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and DramaLogue Awards for her work in Arthur Kopit's Wings, Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, and Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs.

Café:  I have read where Bruce Geller created the role of Cinnamon Carter on Mission: Impossible for you. How did that come about? And were you and then-husband Martin Landau cast at the same time?

Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.
Barbara Bain:  Martin was teaching an acting class. We were all there trying to become better actors. We were young back then--and awfully cute (laughs). Bruce Geller was a writer who had been brought out from New York. Martin wanted writers to see the actor's process. Bruce was quite captivated with watching us, so he wrote the part of Rollin Hand--the man of a thousand roles--for Martin. When he got to the part of "the girl," as Cinnamon was then known, he wrote it for me--although he wasn't clear about that in the beginning. He had to deal with the network and various folks because I was an unknown actress. Even though I had done a number of guest-starring roles, they kept saying: "Who is she? Who is this girl?" Bruce didn't tell me about any of that. So, I had to keep going in for auditions until the last person who needed to see me was Lucille Ball (who ran Desilu Productions), which, of course, was terrifying at the time. I walked in and she took one look at me. "Looks okay to me," she said in her very deep voice. And there I was on the show. So, Martin and I weren't cast exactly at the same time. He was cast first and then me. It was a very exciting, extraordinary time. I was fortunate to work with Bruce Geller. He told the writers: "Write anything. She can do it." That was handing me something golden on a plate, a dream for any actress.

Café:  You mentioned Bruce Geller was in your acting class. Did he aspire to be an actor at one time?

Barbara Bain:  Never, never. Bruce Geller could hardly say three words in a row. He was the most taciturn human being I have ever known. He was in the class solely as a writer. There were a number of writers in the class. At the time, Martin and others had this idea to try to get the writers to understand and develop a relationship with the actor's process. The same thing for directors. Directors are looking for results and actors are going through a process to get those results. The writer, director, and actor have to all try to understand each other in some way to create something. That was the intent. Chinatown writer Robert Towne--Bobby Towne, we called him at the time--was in that class. Nicholson was, too. It was quite a wonderful time for all of us. We would talk through the night after class. We were just so full of ourselves at the time, if you know know what I mean (laughs).

Cinnamon disguised as
a blind princess.
Café:  In her book Tough Choices: A Memoir, Carly Fiorina noted that Cinnamon “neither hid her intellect nor her beauty…she was a full partner to the men on the team.” Were you aware of your character’s impact on young women when you were playing the role?

Barbara Bain:  There wasn't a woman in that regard on television at the time. Young women were writing to me and saying: "I never thought of becoming a so-and-so, but because of watching you on Mission: Impossible, I'm going to get my degree." As the years have gone on, I have gotten a lot of comments like that. For example, I just received a letter from a woman who has retired from NASA and said that she was inspired to pursue her dream because of watching me on Mission: Impossible. I'm just extraordinarily moved by all of this. You're not sure of the impact you have while you're doing it. I'm forever being stopped in markets and told these stories, which is just great.

Café:  What was your favorite episode of Mission: Impossible and why?

The "racy little costume."
Barbara Bain:  You can't have a favorite. They're all like my kids. Certainly, I'm rather fond of the three episodes I won an Emmy for. One of them was called "Illusion." In another, I played a blind Russian tsarina ("The Heir Apparent"). And then there was one that I was captured in. I don't know the name of that one. I think those were the three, but it's been a long time. In "Illusion," which was kind of a take-off on Cabaret, I played a Marlene Dietrich-like character. I sang three songs and did a little dance in a supposedly East German nightclub wearing--for the time--a racy little costume. It had to be approved by CBS. Those were different times. (Click here to watch one of Cinnamon's nightclub numbers on our YouTube Channel.)

Café:  I also liked "The Seal," in which a cat was used to steal a jade seal from the bad guys.

Barbara Bain:  That was brilliant. This person had a trained cat that would do what he wanted him to.

Café:  Why did you and Martin Landau leave Mission: Impossible at the end of three highly-successful seasons?

Barbara Bain:  It's a sad and very difficult thing to explain. It had nothing to do with us leaving together. Some new people took over the show and they wanted to cut down the shooting schedule. They were very eager to have Bruce Geller leave, who was the heart and soul of the show. Martin had a year-to-year contract. The studio didn't like that and wanted to sign him to a longer contract. He did not want to sign one once he knew Bruce was leaving. He wanted to stay for a year and see who was taking over the show. He had that option. I had no option. I had a contract to fulfill. There was extraordinary confusion and misunderstanding on the part of "them"--a long list of names. So, I was caught up in this mess that had to do with Martin's contract. So they put out a lot of publicity that the two of us were standing at the studio gates and holding out for more money. It was never a money question. It was a contract question with Martin. I got caught in it...and it was totally awful. But the true story was only told once, about a year later in a TV Guide article. That's about as much as I want to talk about it. I did want to clarify that it never had to do with money.

Café:  Although the last four years of Mission: Impossible still featured some good episodes, the series was never the same after you and Martin Landau departed.

Barbara Bain:  They removed Bruce Geller from it. Bruce was the center of it. He was the one that understood every single moment of it. He was the one who wrote most of the scripts for the first year. You can't remove that person and expect it to remain the same. And, of course, the two of us departed and it was a different show.

Café:  Before we move on to another topic, I want to ask about the replacement of Steven Hill with Peter Graves as the IMF leader after the first season.

The IMF Team in the second
and third seasons.
Barbara Bain:  Steven had his difficulties that first year. Bruce did want him. He knew the various limitations Steven had in terms of shooting time and he was good with all that. We were all careful not to upset Steven or cause any incidents. It wasn't an easy first year, but we got through it. Of course, Peter was a grown-up; he wasn't like a silly kid. He was a very reliable, wonderful person and we didn't have to be skittish about offending him.

Café:  It always seemed like such a tight team.

Barbara Bain:  It was. And we kept it tight even in that first year, though it was more difficult to do so.

Café:  How would you describe your experience starring as Dr. Helena Russell with Martin Landau in the British science fiction series Space: 1999?

As Dr. Russell in Space: 1999.
Barbara Bain:  It was wonderful. It was very different obviously. The offer that came to us was very posh. One of the things that attracted me were the work hours. To do another U.S. television series, I would have missed a lot of time with my kids. In England, we were told that we would be finished at 5:20 every night--an odd number, but that was the number. That meant I could have dinner with my kids. I'm not so sure my kids were dying to see me at the time (laughs), but I did not want to miss those years. That was one of the considerations. Also, the idea for Space: 1999 was very exciting. The producers came here for some meetings and they really wanted us, which was nice. There was the adventure of going to England. We packed up and took the kids, of course, though the Brits thought that was unusual. Everything about it had appeal. We were there for almost four years; it was intriguing, wonderful, and exciting in so many ways. That group of people from Space: 1999 are still passionately connected to the show. In fact, I will attending a convention in Pennsylvania this month to celebrate Space: 1999. It has been exciting to remain connected to that show.

Café:  Your 1972 made-for-TV movie Goodnight, My Love, co-starring Richard Boone, has become something of a cult film. What was it like playing a femme fatale in a throwback 1940s film noir?

A publicity still with Richard Boone
and Michael Dunn.
Barbara Bain:  I'm just tickled. I didn't know that Goodbye, My Love had become any kind of cult film. I just loved doing that movie with Richard Boone and Michael Dunn. It was interesting to play this woman about whom we find out all kinds of things by the end. She's all "poor me" in the beginning and not so "poor me" by the end of it. I received extraordinary compliments about my performance. I spent some time with (director) Peter Hyams in the last year or two and we recalled making the film. Lee Strasberg (the famous acting teacher) said I was just wonderful. I can't even say it. I can't quote somebody else talking about me without being a little embarrassed. But after all these years, it was very nice to hear that from one's master teacher.

Café:  I recall it being a very good film. It's hard to see these days, as I don't believe it's been released on DVD. There's currently a print on YouTube, although the quality isn't great.

Barbara Bain:  It's nice to know that the things you did a long time ago still resonate. It feels good.

Café:  You have been actively involved in children’s literacy for many years. How did the non-profit Storyline Online (storylineonline.net) come about and what is its mission?

Reading The Kissing Hand for
Storyline Online.
Barbara Bain:  It's something that happened out of playing a board game with my younger daughter Juliet. It was called "Personal Preference" and you were given a card with three topics. Another player challenged you and you had to pick your most favorite thing. One of my cards had to do with reading to children and I hadn't picked it. And Juliet said: "Wait a minute. You always love to read to kids." I said: "Well, I do, but you all grew up in two minutes so I didn't get to read to anybody." She wanted her game point; that's what it was all about. But the next day, I got to thinking about it. I thought, wait a minute, why don't I go somewhere and read to kids? I considered a library, but then decided that kids in a library probably have someone reading to them. So, I went to a park, a sort of summer day camp for kids. And I asked the person in charge if I could read to the kids. We sat on the grass and I read stories to all different ages. That was where it started. Then, I went to Tom Bradley, our mayor (in Los Angeles) and to the Screen Actors Guild. I said: "Here is this enormous population of actors that can read...we have to read to get roles. It's a large population that likes an audience. And we have an awful lot of time on our hands." So, it was a a perfect fit for the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, which at the time was looking for some kind of project that had to do with the city and some kind of giving back. Within three or four weeks, it all happened. It was very fast for a specific project. That was the beginning of it almost twenty years ago.The actors went to the schools and to the kids' rooms and read. I went to a neighborhood called Watts and read for one day a week to kindergarten and first-grade students for 15 years. Ultimately, it morphed into an online program known as Storyline Online. It's enormously successful and involves actors from all over the globe. You pick a story and an actor reads it. It's a wonderful way to get kids interested in literature. I am a reader. I have been a reader my entire life. I love reading. It was just something I cared about tremendously. I find it exceedingly rewarding. Every time I would leave that kindergarten or first grade class, I was all excited and happy as well as the kids. There is something about that connection.

Café: It's a wonderful way to promote children reading.

Barbara Bain: It was so important to me. I remember getting my first library card and it had my name on it. It made me a very important person.

Café: You have been involved in the Los Angeles theater scene for many years—as an actress, director, and mentor to drama students. Which do you find more fulfilling:  your stage work or your work in film and television?

Barbara Bain:  You know, I love it all. I love the process. All these years later, I'm enamored with this ephemeral thing where you're trying to grab air all the time. In so doing, you're coming together with all these people and trying to make something. It's my second love affair. My first love affair was dance. I'm still dancing and taking classes. There are still things about dance class that I just love.

Café: Didn't you go to New York to study with choreographer Martha Graham?

Barbara Bain:  Yes. My first love was dance. And then, I segued into acting, which became my life, which was wonderful. I don't have a complaint in the universe. I've just had an extraordinary time and I'm still doing what I want to do.

Café: What can you tell us about your forthcoming appearance in Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks, co-starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones?

Barbara Bain:  You know as much about it as I'm allowed to speak about it. I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, so I can't say anything until they start releasing press about it. Before I spoke with you, I asked if I could talk about it. And they said: "No. Not yet." So, my lips are sealed. But yes, it was great fun. Sofia Coppola is just a darling person. It was a wonderful experience.

Café: Are there other upcoming projects you’d like to share with our readers?

Barbara Bain:  I have a short film we did last summer, which is in a festival this weekend. It called Take My Hand, and will probably start hitting the festival circuit. I find short films very interesting to work on because they're mostly made by young people trying to get a feature film made. So, you can get a sense of what's on their mind, what they've written, and what kinds of things they're cooking up. Take My Hand stars Sondra Currie and Eileen Grubba and is directed by Alan J. Levi, who probably directed 500 television shows. He's a very knowledgeable director. We all know each other by working in The Actors Studio. It was something that Eileen started writing there for the two of us. It's great.

Café:  We look forward to seeing it. Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us and for sharing your love of acting and your passion for children's literacy.


Editor notes:

1.  The Mission: Impossible episode in which Cinnamon was captured may have been "The Exchange" from the third season.

2.  Breakaway: 2019, a Space: 1999 convention, will take place September 12-15, 2019, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Click here for details.

3.  Reference the Mission: Impossible shooting schedule during the first season, Steven Hill left the set early on Friday afternoons and did not work on Saturday because he was an Orthodox Jew.

9 comments:

  1. Like many tv movies, Goodnight my Love was a busted pilot. Peter Hyams served as his own director of photography, I believe, and it has his diffused lighting.

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  2. This interview is delightful. Along with my admiration for Ms. Bain, I now add affection.

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  3. What an absolute joy to read! I love Cinnamon Carter and was thrilled with her work on the IMF team. Ms. Bain paved the way for all young ladies! This interview touched my heart also because of her work with literacy. Well done, Rick, and an enthusiastic thank you to the lovely and gracious Barbara Bain.

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  4. Loved this interview. So much info about two seminal shows....and the wonderful actress in them! xxxooo

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  5. Would have liked to read about her relationship with Martin and his death, but otherwise a lovely article.

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  6. Thanks for this compelling and informative chat with the lovely and talented Ms. Bain. A great read!

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  7. What a great interview! I always loved Barbara Bain and her work both in Mission Impossible and so many many television roles. She mentions that she was relatively unknown at the time of being cast in MI but she really did a lot of TV guest appearences before 1966 including a good spot in Perry Mason. I'm glad she talked about her non-profit, too.

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  8. She is such a beautiful lady, and always so gracious. Thank you for this interview.

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  9. Really nice interview. It just so happens that I have been making my way (slowly) through Season 1 of Mission. Barbara was, of course, marvelous, as were all the other actors and actresses. Steven Hill was a bit strange, and I always wondered why he didn't return for S2. Also, having grown up in LA it is strange watching how the Production Designer(s) found so many different, and inexpensive ways, to shoot exteriors in and around 1960s LA and make it look like foreign countries. The best one was the old (pre-renovation) Museum of Science and Industry standing for a prison in an early episode involving trying to break a scientist out. Great stuff.

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