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.
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