Morris, Greg 1934–1996
Greg Morris 1934–1996
Greg Morris skyrocketed to fame in the hit television series Mission: Impossible during the mid 1960s to early 1970s. He was one of the first black stars of a hit television series in the United States, placing him in the company of Bill Cosby, who gained fame starring in the hit show I Spy, and Ivan Dixon of Hogan’s Heroes.Throughout his career, he remained insistent on playing non-stereotypical roles. Morris was proud that his role in the Mission: Impossible series did not require being black and that a white actor would have filled the role if Morris had not taken it.
Greg Morris was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a trumpet player and lona Morris. His father left when Morris was three years old. Growing up without a father had a strong impact on his life. Morris would often run away from home, and his mother once resorted to hiding his shoes to prevent him from doing so.
When he was eighteen years old and out of high school, Morris joined the army, serving from 1952 to 1955. When he returned to Ohio he went to work in the post office, and met Lee Keys in 1956. The couple were married in 1957, and their family grew to include three children: Phil, lona, and Linda. Each of the Morris children followed their father into show business. Phil and lona both became actors and Linda became a film production executive.
Morris attended Ohio State University and then the University of Iowa, where he majored in drama. He left before graduating, however, heading for Seattle and the stage. When he was not acting, he worked as a wine steward. Although Morris appeared primarily in only minor roles, he did win the lead in a local production of A Raisin in the Sun.Reprising the role in California helped him gain entry to Hollywood, where he landed early roles in Ben Casey, The Twilight Zone, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.He also appeared in a pilot that did not lead to a series. However, the producer of that pilot, Bruce Geller, called on Morris for casting in a new show sparked by the Cold War—Missicn: Impossible.
His role in the new spy series was the cool, unflappable electronics technical wizard Barney Collier. He was featured in more episodes than any of the other characters. The show ran from 1966 to 1973, and was a huge hit. According to People Weekly, Morris called Mission: Impossible “the finest filmed series in television
Born September 27, 1934 in Cleveland, OH; son of a musician, and lona Morris; married, Lee Keys Morris; children: Phil, lona, and Linda. Education: Attended Ohio State University and University of Iowa, late 1950s.
Career: United States Army, 1952-55; United States Postal Service; actor; theater work in Seattle, WA; various television episode and movie appearances 1963-94; series regular Mission: Impossible, 1966-73; regular supporting role in television series, Vega$, 1979-81.
Awards: Fashion, Television, and Costume Designers Guild, most promising newcomer, 1968-69; Los Angeles Father of the Year, 1969; honorary degree, Miles College, 1969; Image Award, NAACP, 1971; Star of the Year, Hollywood Women’s Press Club, 1971; Television Father of the Year, National Father’s Day Committee, 1971; VIVA citation, 1971; Ethics Award, Sisterhood Temple Emanuel, 1971; Unity Award, 1973.
history.” He credited a substantial portion of the show’s success to the cast. He was quoted in People Weekly as saying, “We genuinely liked each other. That’s what made the show a hit.”
During the Mission years Morris also accepted roles in other hit television series, including Sanford and Son and The Streets of San Francisco.He also played Barney Collier in Paramount’s 1968 film, Mission Impossible Versus the Mob.
When the Mission: Impossible series ended in 1973 Morris slipped from fame into obscurity, despite several guest roles on various series, mini-series, and in television movies, including The Love Boat, Wonder Woman, T.J. Hooker, Murder, She Wrote, The Jesse Owens Story, and Roots: The Next Generations.In 1975 he reprised his Barney Collier character in a spy spoof called “Mission Incredible” for the hit show, The Jeffer sons.His work was limited by his insistence that he would not play stereotypical stock black characters, refusing to play roles of drug dealers, pimps, and abusers of women. Morris was unable to find another starring role, and his struggles led to alcoholism, a disease from which he would struggle to recover.
Morris resurfaced in a regular, supporting role as Lieutenant Dave Nelson in Vega$.The ABC series starring Robert Urich lasted two years. He also appeared in the 1978 series pilot. The movie and series were filmed on location, and Morris liked the Las Vegas area so much he and his wife moved there. By then their children were in college in California and the Las Vegas location made it easy for the family to be together during college breaks.
In 1981 Morris was involved in a near-fatal car accident and underwent five hours of plastic surgery. He did not reappear in television or film for several years, but then resumed his acting career and appeared in small roles in several movies and series. In 1988 the Mission: Impossible series was revived on ABC, running for two years. Morris returned to the series as the same, although older, Barney Collier, and in a smaller role. To Morris’s great pride, his son, Phil, took on the role of Barney’s son.
Morris was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1990. A lifelong smoker, Morris continued to smoke after the diagnosis. It was then discovered that Morris had a brain tumor, which was removed in 1991.
When actor and producer Tom Cruise brought Mission: Impossible to the big screen in 1996, many fans of the original series were disappointed that the original cast was left out to the movie. Fans, however, were not the only to voice their dissatisfaction. Both Morris and Jim Graves, who had played the lead character Jim Phelps in the original television series expressed their displeasure with being left out of the film. Morris did not have a high opinion of the new movie, leaving the theater after watching only 40 minutes and calling the film “an abomination” in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Greg Morris died in his Las Vegas apartment on August 27, 1996, one month from his 62nd birthday. In early 2000 his daughter, lona, performed a one-woman show to pay tribute to her father. She named the show “For You,” using the same title her father had used on a jazz album he had released in the 1970s. The Tallahassee Democrat quoted her as saying, “Dad was an inspiration and gave the country a fresh look at black men, who have only wanted to be recognized as bright, worthy, and reliable. He was the coolest guy I ever met.”
Television Series Work
Ben Casey, 1963.
The Dick Van Dyke Show, 1963.
The Twilight Zone, 1963.
Mission: Impossible, 1966-73.
Sanford and Son, 1972.
The Streets of San Francisco, 1972.
The Six Million Dollar Man, 1974.
The Jeffersons, 1975.
Wonder Woman, 1976.
The Love Boat, 1977.
TJ. Hooker, 1982.
Murder, She Wrote, 1984.
Mission: Impossible, 1988-89.
Roots: The Next Generations, 1979.
The Jesse Owens Story, 1984.
Mission Impossible Versus The Mob, 1968.
Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, Volume 25, Gale Group, 2000.
Ebony, May 1981, p. 33.
Jet, September 16, 1996, p.51.
People Weekly, September 9, 1996, p. 106.
The Tallahassee Democrat, February 25, 2000, page F16.
Additional information was obtained online at www.best.com/~gregwong/mi/morris_story.html, CNN Interactive.
—Sandy J. Stiefer
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