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After two years of playing to respectable but not spectacular ratings, Mission: Impossible finally attained the gold ring in season three, when it was ranked as America's 11th most popular series by the A.C. Nielsen Company. At this point in time, the series' formula had been committed to memory by its faithful fans. In virtually every episode, Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), head of the Impossible Missions Force, would be assigned by an anonymous governmental higher-up to undertake a covert mission in the interests of world peace, international security, the thwarting of big-time crime, or a combination thereof. After the self-destruction of the tape recorder from which these instructions emanated, Phelps would choose the IMF operatives best suited to the task at hand. Almost invariably throughout season three, these worthies would include sexy "mystery woman" Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), master dialectician and makeup artist Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), electronics wizard Barney Collier (Greg Morris), and general-purpose muscleman Willie Armitage (Peter Lupus). Journeying to an exotic locale (usually in a fictional country run by despots or controlled by crooks), the IMFers utilized an astonishing array of disguises, props, and meticulously preplanned schemes (but seldom weaponry) to foil the villain of the week -- generally through the simple process of getting the villain to trip himself up with his own ego or greed.
Among the season's most memorable episodes are the two-part "The Contenders," in which Barney poses as a boxer making a comeback to destroy a bout-fixing syndicate (also seen in this episode is real life boxing champ Sugar Ray Robinson); another two-parter, "The Bunker," wherein the IMF must rescue the wife of a scientist who is being blackmailed into conspiring with the enemy; "The Elixir," featuring Ruth Roman as an Evita-style Latin American dictator who is duped into turning her country over to a democratic government; "The Freeze," in which the team convinces a mobster that he has been cryogenically frozen for 14 years to trick him into revealing the whereabouts of some stolen loot; "The Mind of Stefan Miklos," guest-starring Ed Asner as an enemy agent who is hoodwinked into trusting his worst enemy; "The Exchange," a tour de force for series regular Barbara Bain, in which Cinnamon is kidnapped and subjected to her worst fear -- being confined in a tiny place -- as a means to get her to betray the IMF; "Illusion," another showcase for Bain as she impersonates a dead nightclub singer; "The Execution," with Vincent Gardenia as a paid assassin who rats on his boss after the IMF stages a realistic gas-chamber execution before his very eyes; and "Live Bait," featuring a young, bespectacled Martin Sheen as a cloddish enemy operative who is literally seduced into helping the IMFers rescue a double agent from a diabolical torture device. Although the series' lofty ratings, coupled with a third Emmy award win for regular Barbara Bain, should have been occasion for celebration, all was not champagne and roses backstage at Mission: Impossible. Both Bain and her husband, Martin Landau, were publicly clashing with series producer Bruce Geller over their working conditions and the quality of the scripts, and by the end of season three, the series' two most popular actors had ankled the project, never to return. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
- Peter Graves, Barbara Bain, (more)