How Lucy Ricardo Gave Birth to ‘Mission: Impossible’

Mission Impossible Lucy Ricardo
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Rex/Shutterstock

If it weren’t for Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, Tom Cruise would not be saving the free world in “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” which opens July 31.

In 1950 Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz formed Desilu Prods., and the huge success of “I Love Lucy” turned Desilu into a powerhouse that created many more TV series and owned two studio lots. Many successful years later, Variety ran a story on Aug 17, 1966, saying Desilu had firmed a lucrative deal with CBS for a fifth season of “The Lucy Show” and was debuting two one-hour series in the fall: “Star Trek” on NBC and “Mission: Impossible” on CBS.

That’s a pretty good slate for one year.

The series “Mission: Impossible,” under creator-producer-writer Bruce Geller, ran from 1966-73, but it was much slower to transfer to the bigscreen than its stablemate (the first “Star Trek” movie debuted in 1979). The film “Mission: Impossible,” which marked Cruise’s producing debut, bowed in 1996, and not everybody was excited.

In a May 20, 1996, review, Variety’s Greg Evans said, “Aside from the famous title and pulse-thumping theme song, the series rates only a bit higher than ‘Mannix’ ” in terms of inciting nostalgia for a 30-year-old TV series. However, Evans said the film was action-packed and well-made, and he predicted good business. In fact, it surpassed everyone’s expectations, earning a boffo $457 million worldwide.

The fifth in the bigscreen franchise, the new “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” received a positive review from Variety’s Justin Chang, who reminded readers that “the Brad Bird-directed ‘Ghost Protocol’ overcame a slow start to become the series’ highest-grossing entry (nearly $700 million worldwide), suggesting there was still plenty of life in ‘Mission: Impossible’ — and in Tom Cruise’s career…”

Cruise made his film debut in “Endless Love” in 1981 when he was 19. He became a star in the 1983 “Risky Business,” and “Top Gun” was the top-grossing movie of 1986. Two years later, the 1988 “Cocktail” was a personal success of a different sort. The film earned a front-page banner in Daily Variety when it opened to a then-impressive $11.7 million weekend, a Buena Vista record. It wasn’t as big a hit as “Top Gun” but it was significant for the actor’s career, since it confirmed that audiences would go see him in a movie that was simply OK.

Cruise first played Ethan Hunt 19 years ago, which means he is ahead of Hugh Jackman (15 years and counting as Wolverine); Johnny Weissmuller (16 years as Tarzan) and Sigourney Weaver (18 years as Ripley). But he’s far behind Harrison Ford (27 years as Indiana Jones), Arnold Schwarzenegger (31 years as the Terminator), Anthony Daniels (38 years as C-3PO), Sylvester Stallone (39 years as Rocky Balboa) — and Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock over a period of 47 years.

This month La-La Land Records is issuing a six-CD package “Mission: Impossible — the Television Scores” in a limited-edition box set produced by frequent Variety contributor Jon Burlingame. It contains music from the seven years of the TV show, including that “pulse-thumping theme song,” which still works as well as when Lalo Schifrin wrote it 49 years ago.

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  1. Marshall Silverman says:

    The famous title and pulse-thumping theme song are the only things the movies have in common with the TV series. The TV series was brilliantly written for its time and worked a very unique format about a special group of people with multiple talents being given special covert assignments which required incredibly clever planning, teamwork and cutting-edge execution. The movies are about one guy, less Mission Impossible and more James Bond. Of course, the ultimate insult to the fans of the TV series was the first entry in the movie franchise in which the TV show’s heroes were not only murdered and discredited, but their leader was found to be the evil cause of their demise. Total annihilation of the elements which caused the TV series to garner so many loyal fans was a real slap in the face to those fans. It is good that the filmmakers waited so many years before producing the first movie, because if they had treated the subject matter with such blatant disrespect back then, the fans would have boycotted the movie.

  2. curiousminds says:

    Fascinating. That’s at least 3 projects Desilu produced that turned into long-running franchises. I wonder if Desilu still exists as an entity and if it has a profit participation in the sequels. If it did, Desi Jr. and Lucie must be sitting pretty.

    • jsm1963 says:

      It was sold to Paramount Pictures in 1967. Paramount renamed it Paramount Television. I worked on the side of the Paramount lot that was previously Desilu and RKO Pictures before that. Supposedly the soundstage used for Frasier at the time was the one used for I Love Lucy.

  3. TONY says:

    Lucy also signed the check to greenlight the original Star Trek in 1965….she had clout!

  4. Tell It says:

    I’ll catch this one on Netflix.

  5. HNB says:

    So when comparing Cruise’s time as Ethan Hunt, the article mentions Harrison Ford playing Indy for 27 years, and Anthony Daniels as playing C3PO for 38, but doesn’t bother to mention that Harrison has been Han Solo for 38 as well.

    • Bill B. says:

      That might be because Daniels has been involved with every Star Wars film ever made. Up until now, Ford hasn’t touched the role in 32 years.

  6. cadavra says:

    And there’s one other, remarkably coincidental link between the two shows: both movie franchises feature Simon Pegg!

  7. Bill says:

    But fans of the show will NEVER forgive Cruise for making beloved IMF leader Jim Phelps into a traitor.

  8. Thomas says:

    You might have also mentioned that Ball and second husband produced one of Tom Cruise’s first films, “All the Right Moves” but Ball had her name removed from the credits.

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