Obituary: Greg Morris

In the early years of American television, black people were invariably stereotyped in comedy series like Amos'n'Andy. A change occurred in 1965 with the launch of NBC's I Spy, the first drama series to star a white actor (Robert Culp) opposite a black one (Bill Cosby). Thirty years on it is hard to imagine the controversy this casting provoked. However, I Spy opened the floodgates for a succession of top-rated drama series with black actors playing important featured roles.

Almost overnight, integrated casting ruled the day, though some critics had reservations about the credibility of some of television's new black heroes. Among the most popular black stars of this "new generation" were Nichelle Nichols (Lt Uhura in NBC's Star Trek), Hari Rhodes (the African conservationist in CBS's Daktari) and Greg Morris as the technical wizard Barney Collier in CBS's Mission: Impossible (1966-73). This series is currently enjoying a rerun on Channel 4 every Sunday morning.

Greg Morris's regular appearances as a member of the team of CIA-like agents in Mission: Impossible made a huge impact, and helped to break new ground. Between 1969 and 1972 he was nominated for three Emmy awards as Best Supporting Actor.

The African-American film and television historian Donald Bogle has described Collier as "one of the first serious black characters to appear regularly on a series. Intelligent, reserved, shrewd, and almost resplendently cool and mildly remote. Morris was also something of a heart-throb, although the scripts usually kept him confined to the non-romantic sidelines of the action."

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Morris attended Ohio State University and the University of Iowa. Moving to Hollywood in the early 1960s, he made appearances on such top-rated American television drama series as Twilight Zone, Dr Kildare and The Fugitive before finding fame in Mission: Impossible.

In a 1963 episode of the medical series Ben Casey, Morris gave a memorable performance as a black doctor whose virulent anti-white racism leads to a showdown with Sammy Davis Jr, the star of the drama. This appearance was in sharp contrast to the mild-mannered character he later played in Mission: Impossible.

After Mission: Impossible ended in 1973, Morris worked regularly in American television, playing guest roles in such major dramatic programmes as Streets of San Francisco, Quincy, Roots: The Next Generations and The Jesse Owens Story. He also had a supporting role in the ABC series Vega$ (1979-81) but his career was interrupted by a serious car accident in 1981.

He did not appear on television again until a short-lived revival of Mission: Impossible, which also featured his son Phil, in 1989.

Looking at Greg Morris and Nichelle Nichols in re-runs of Mission: Impossible and Star Trek on British television, it seems they are the Invisible Man and Woman of television. Neither series makes an issue of their colour. It seems CBS and NBC wanted to avoid race altogether. So Morris and Nichols became isolated characters without any "real" cultural context or African-American identity. But, as Donald Bogle has said of Barney Collier in Mission: Impossible: "It's hard not to like or respect the character . . . in terms of television's tiny evolutionary steps, he is indeed important: a black strong and capable of making decisions."

Greg Morris, actor: born Cleveland, Ohio 27 September 1934; died Las Vegas, Nevada 27 August 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opening has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Recruitment Genius: Inside Sales Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Join a worldwide leader in data-driven marketi...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn