Like father, like son. While most TV viewers know him best as Jackie Chiles, the Johnny Cochran-ish lawyer who was repeatedly humiliated by Kramer on "Seinfeld," one of actor Phil Morris's first big roles was playing a TV spy who'd also been played by his father two decades earlier.
Both Morrises -- son Phil and father Greg -- are front and center in Paramount Home Video's massive new DVD box set "Mission: Impossible -- The Complete Television Collection," a 56-disc box that includes all seven seasons of the original 1966-73 CBS drama, as well as both seasons of the 1988-90 ABC revival series.
Greg Morris starred as electronics guru Barney Collier in the "M:I" series that launched the franchise (and inspired nearly every other spy-themed series and movie that came after it), while Phil Morris, who'd grown up visiting his father on the set of the original show, auditioned to play Barney in the remake, won the role, and then saw his character rewritten as Barney's son, Grant Collier.
"The Complete Television Collection" set includes an archived interview with the late Greg Morris as well as a behind-the-scenes featurette with never-before-seen interviews with Morris co-stars Peter Graves, Martin Landau, and Barbara Bain; episode and series promos; and an "M:I" photo montage set to a vocal version of the iconic theme song, performed by the Kane Triplets.
The DVD collection's packaging is also among the year's coolest: It's shaped like a stick of dynamite -- complete with fuse -- which opens up to reveal the nearly five dozen discs.
In between his busy acting and voiceover schedule -- including roles on everything from "Hot in Cleveland" and "Shake It Up!" to "Green Lantern: The Animated Series" and "Ultimate Spider-Man," as well as a cheeky Web series called "Shelf Life" and new episodes of the TV One comedy "Love That Girl!" -- Phil Morris talked to Yahoo! TV about the unusual way the "M:I" revival made it to ABC's schedule, what it was like working with his father, and how his childhood playgrounds were the " Brady Bunch" and "Star Trek" sets.
The "M:I" revival came about because of a writers' strike in Hollywood?
Yes, and because of that, the network had to come up with a show that translated for modern audiences, without changing a word. "Mission: Impossible" filled the bill. We heard they were going into production and were very excited about it, but I didn't have a clue whether or not they would see me. I didn't know if they thought it would be too on the nose (to cast me to play the role my father had played).
All of my friends -- at the time we were all young struggling actors -- were going in (to audition) for the role of Barney Collier. They would call me after the audition, and be like, "I did OK, but when are you going in?" I'd say, "I haven't gotten a call yet."
They had this incredible opportunity, to have you play the role your father had played, and weren't even considering it? But the call finally came.
One day the call came in, and they said I had an appointment, so I went in and did my thing and the casting people liked it. Then they sent me to the studio. ... They liked it. ... Then I went to the network and ultimately ended up getting [the part], but it was through the normal audition channels, like everyone else. Nobody was looking for me. I didn't make a hot and heavy attempt to try to grease the wheels and say, "Hey, look at me. My last name is Morris." It was very normal, and then when I got it, it was not normal at all, of course.
I literally got the role as Barney Collier. They were still [working] under the writers' strike, and they couldn't change anything, so I literally got cast as Barney. When the strike broke, which was right after [everyone] was cast, then they made me, in their infinite wisdom, the son of Barney, which was a role I had been preparing for my whole life. (Laughs)
Your dad is such a beloved star of the original series. He must have been thrilled to see you in this role.
When I got it, he was thrilled ... yelling up and down and screaming. We both knew it was a one-in-a-billion shot to get anything, and then to get this. That they would do "Mission: Impossible" again, that I would be an actor, that I would be of a certain age that was appropriate. ... It was kismet in a way, and he was thrilled. I don't know if I heard him be that excited about anything that I've done, ever. It was really a proud moment for both of us and something really special.
Your dad guest-starred in three episodes of the revival series with you. Had that been planned from the beginning, when you were cast?
Yes, it was always on the table that there would be former cast members that would come in and guest. When I got the part, of course, my dad was at the head of that list, because of the personal connection and the things that they could write for us. We knew that it was a possibility. We just didn't know what form it would take or when he would show up.
"M:I" was chosen for the revival because the themes and the general concept of the show is so universal, and obviously the movies have been big hits. Do you think it could become a series a third time?
Absolutely. But only if it was made clear that there is just one "Mission: Impossible" team. That got muddied in the [revival series] and the movies. My father was very upset with that, and as I watched the episodes and I watched the movies, I became upset with it. It dilutes this very special group of people who are the only people ... there's not another mask-maker, there's not another femme fatale like this, there's not another strongman, there's not another electronic brain just like Barney Collier. To do it again, you have to hold true to the tenets that (original series creator) Bruce Geller put forth. If you do that, it'll kill. Every team show, every espionage show, every show and movie like that that has come after "Mission," owes "Mission" a debt. If a Bryan Singer or somebody of that ilk decided to take this on, then it would fly as well as "Star Trek" has in its new iterations.
Speaking of the "M:I" movies, we read that your dad wasn't a fan of them, that he walked out in the middle of one. True?
Yes. I think he just saw it in Vegas one time at a matinee. ... He was like, "OK, as much as this galls me to go see it, I'm going to." (Laughing) But yes, he didn't like it because it isn't "Mission: Impossible" that Tom [Cruise] is doing. I love Tom Cruise. I wanted to do the movies, too, and maybe some of my interviews have kept me from a part in them because I've been critical. But he's really doing "MacGyver," as far as I'm concerned. It's a one man gang, and then he has Ving Rhames and certain people who plug in. ... He's really a one man gang, and if he wanted to do that, "MacGyver" is a much better franchise for that.
But he chose "Mission: Impossible" for obvious reasons, I understand, and it's been wildly successful. I hold nothing against him or anybody that has gone with this. I certainly would've loved to have played a part. The audience could've gone, "Wow, at least we've got somebody connected with the original DNA of the show." I look forward to trying to do that now. I don't think it's going to happen, but it would be great.
Was the "M:I" revival series the first time you worked with your dad?
I had worked with him on a show called "Superior Court," with my sister Iona. It was a daytime trial drama (where real-life court cases were re-enacted), and I was an attorney, and my father played my client. My sister played the prosecuting attorney. It was funny. That was the first time we worked together, and it was fun and interesting.
But doing "Mission" was just a whole other level entirely. I was honored to be with him and honored to play those scenes with him. At the time my father was going through his own struggles, quite honestly, and as I get further and further removed from those days, I see it clearly. I see the difficulty he was having emotionally, physically, in his life. If you watch the episodes, you can see it. That was particularly hard for me, and it was a double edged sword. Here we are doing this amazing show that he and Peter Graves made famous. I'm fortunate enough to be in this rollout. Here he comes down to Australia to do it. A part of me was like, "Wow, this is going to be amazing," and part of me was scared to death, quite frankly.
Can you talk a little about that? Was he having problems in his career at that point?
Yes, as an African American actor ... he was one of the first to do what I'm fortunate enough to do now. Because of him and people like Bill Cosby, I'm able to. I used to want to be the first black president. "I'll be the first one!" I do not want to be the first anything anymore. (Laughing) It's a thankless, difficult place to be, and my father ... he didn't get what he deserved. He was beautiful and smart and talented, so it always hurts me when I talk about it, because I realize the pain that he went through and how difficult it was. His white brethren didn't go through it. They were given part after part after part, chance after chance after chance, opportunity after opportunity, and he was not. He wasn't willing to subjugate himself to playing pimps and pushers, the roles at the time that were very popular and the community really rallied behind, because it was like, "Yo, this is our statement." But it wasn't his statement. He was trying to be legitimate, and there was no place in our medium for that.
That's what happened to him, and he stood fast with his values, and it made for a very lonely career.
Were you aware of his fame, and of how successful he was on "Mission: Impossible" (Greg Morris received three Emmy nominations for his role as Barney Collier) when you were growing up? Were you aware of how significant it was that he was one of just a few African American TV stars on primetime, along with Bill Cosby on "I Spy" and Ivan Dixon on "Hogan's Heroes"?
I became aware especially as I was a teenager. It was always special. It was always a special thing. The gravity of his involvement didn't really sink in, we didn't acknowledge that consciously until maybe a couple of years into it. Then we were representatives, not just representatives of our family, but representatives of our race and our culture. It was made clear to us. Our parents are very bright people. They understood the time. They understood the uniqueness of my father's position and situation and our situation as a family. They made it very clear to us. We definitely were aware of how important and significant our father was. We were very proud of him, all of us, my sisters and I, very, very proud of him, and did everything we could to represent ourselves and our family and our people in the most positive light possible.