Meeting Peter Graves

by Sally Carpenter

Over the years I’ve met celebrities at book signings, concerts and appearances. Some stars have been quite charming; others apparently wanted me to go away. One particular appearance comes in mind regarding my WIP set in 1967.

In 1967 the entertainment world was spy crazy. Imitating the success of the new James Bond films came the spy parodies “Our Man Flint,” “In Like Flint,” “The Silencers” and “Murderer’s Row.” Television was chock-a-block spies with “The Man From UNCLE,” “The Girl From UNCLE,” “Get Smart,” “The Avengers” “The Wild, Wild West” (secret agents in the Old West) and “Mission: Impossible.”

As a kid I didn’t understand “MI” when it first aired, although I had a crush on Peter Graves. Years later when watching the shows in syndication I became a devout fan. In fact, my WIP works the “MI” show into the story as homage.

On a Friday in 2009, I glanced through the weekend entertainment section of the newspaper and saw that the next day Peter Graves was scheduled to receive an award at the Ojai Film Festival. The event would start with a screening of the film “Airplane!” with Graves in a hilarious comic performance, followed by comments from Graves and an audience Q&A.

Ojai was about an hour or so drive from my town and the festival was open to the public. Why not go, I thought. I thought up an interesting question for the Q&A and pulled out my book “The Mission: Impossible Dossier,” about the making of the TV show, for him to autograph.

Ojai is one of those places you can’t get there from here. To go by freeway meant dealing with heavy traffic, so I opted for the back roads route. What looked like an easy path on the map became navigating up and down steep hills with winding streets and hairpin turns. I was too busy watching the road to enjoy the rural scenery.

Ojai has basically one main street, so finding the location wasn’t difficult. The event would take place inside a drab school auditorium. Hardly the sort of dazzling venue fit for a star of Graves’ caliber. I stood in the long line, waiting for the doors to open. Some people were talking to the man ahead of me. I didn’t pay any attention to him.

Inside the auditorium I took a front row seat on the right hand side on the old-fashioned wooden bleacher-type chairs. The emcee said the festival’s custom was to ask the honoree to select their favorite piece of work to screen. Graves had picked “Airplane!” An interesting choice.

After the movie, Graves came out front along with Robert Hayes, another “Airplane!” star. Also joining them was the man who stood in line in front of me—Rossie Harris, who played Joey in the movie (the kid in the cockpit) and now all grown up. Now I wish I’d gotten his autograph.

Unfortunately, Graves was no longer the handsome leading man. He looked ill, was quite thin and used a cane for walking/standing. His voice quavered a little and at one point he seemed to forget what he was saying. But for the most part his mind was still sharp and his speech lucid.

When the Q&A started, I raised my hand. I mentioned that Peter smoked a lot of “MI.” Was that just for the character or did he smoke in real life? (Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and Greg Morris also smoked on the show).

Graves replied in a strong voice, quote, “I smoked for forty years and enjoyed every puff!” He went on to say he was forced to quit smoking after a skiing accident that resulted in his jaws being wired shut for several weeks. The doctor gave him a set of wire cutters so he could remove the wires in case he needed to throw up (TMI).

The program ended and the audience was leaving. Graves and his entourage headed for the exit. I was sitting between him and the door. I ran up to him and said, “May I have your autograph?”

He said, “I came empty handed,” meaning he had nothing to sign for me.

I held out the book and a pen. He seemed surprise. “Oh, you have the book!” I set the book on the stage (we were on the ground floor) so he’d had a firm surface for writing. He took the pen and signed the page I had opened. I thanked him and he left the building. I don’t know if he was annoyed at me—I was the only one in the crowd that had accosted him—but I was over the moon.

Graves died six months later.

What I’ve learned from meeting celebrities is to always be gracious to a fan. As a published author I haven’t had many opportunities to meet readers, and I’ll never be as famous as Graves, but when I’m “on stage” I strive to be pleasant and accommodating. Once at a writers convention a reader interrupted me while I was eating to sign my book. I was so thrilled that someone actually wanted my autograph that I didn’t mind at all.

But don’t bother me in the ladies’ room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cold War ethics

My WIP is a cold war cozy, a somewhat traditional cozy mystery with spies. The setting is 1967, the peak of the spy craze on TV and in the movies.

One of my favorite shows from this era is “Mission: Impossible.” I love the series for the top-notch writing, complex plots and logical structure. But on re-watching the show, I’m dismayed at some of the distressing ethical values.

Members of the IM Force, for unclear reasons, are not allowed to directly assassinate the villains (which would make for short and dull episodes). However, they can lie, cheat and steal as well as deceive, trick, con and manipulate other people into doing the killing for them. How is this better than simply doing the dirty deed themselves?

The end justifies the means. Trampling on emotions is acceptable as long as it brings about the desired results. In the first-season episode “The Short Tail Spy,” Cinnamon Carter carries on a lengthy romance with the mark, even spending the night with him. Does she really fall in love with him or is it all an act? We never really know how Cinnamon feels about the affair. But if she does have feelings for him, she never lets her emotions compromise the mission. Like an actress, she can conjure up fake emotions to serve her purpose.

In another episode, the IM Force is leaving the building at the end of the episode and they hear a gunshot. When someone asks who was killed, Jim Phelps replies rather coldly, “Does it matter?” A rather callous attitude, but necessary in this business.

Bruce Geller, the series creator, stated that he wanted the characters to be “ciphers,” completing the mission with no emotion or revealing their own personality. In a few episodes, we catch tantalizing glimpses of the team members joking and interacting with each other (in a seventh-season episode, Barney and Jim briefly enjoy a friendly game of tennis on a day off). But the agents, for the most part, remain pawns in the spy game. We see the agents portray every type of character expect themselves, yet sealing off their own emotions doesn’t appear to cause mental health issues.

And they are expendable. The government will deny their existence in the event the agents are caught or killed. So they are on their own. How can the agents remain loyal to a government that needs them but wants nothing to do with them?

The missions work because the villains have no ethics. The missions/cons work because the baddies are ruthless, greedy, egotistical. lusty and cruel. A con game only works on a mark that wants to be conned.

Yet “MI” has some positive aspects. Compared to most spy shows of the time, the body count is low. In the first season, the team members engaged in some gunplay, but soon that was phased out.

The team members had an extraordinarily high moral sense. They lied and conned only evil individuals and not for personal gain. They felt a need to rid the world of drugs, dictators, nuclear bombs in the wrong hands, corruption and brutality.

They never defected to the other side or were never tempted by the money or power. They never took bribes or betrayed another team member (unless it was part of the mission). If a team member was captured, the others made sure he/she was rescued.

They were willing to put their lives in danger for—what? Not for fame or fortune. They received no public recognition for their service. Due to secrecy they probably had few friends outside the agency. Their only reward was a personal satisfaction for bringing about justice in a wicked world.

My WIP looks at the ethical nature of the spy game. A spy agency recruits my heroine, a civilian, to help with a case. At one point, a spy tells the heroine she will have to kill the enemy. The heroine is shocked—murder goes against her beliefs and morality. In another situation, she must do something she feels isn’t right or else risk blowing her cover. This being a cozy, everything works out to a happy ending, but it’s interesting to explore how she reacts to these situations without compromising her own ethics.