21 Beacon Street, Leonard Heideman

21 Beacon Street’s Impossible Missions

In 13 episodes, lost TV wonder 21 Beacon Street is an uncanny and legally actionable precursor to the Mission Impossible franchise.

21 Beacon Street
Leonard Heideman
27 June 2023

An obscure but important piece of television history had a crucial impact on one of today’s biggest Hollywood franchises. The 1959 series 21 Beacon Street and its 13 black and white half-hour episodes are finally on DVD thanks to ClassicFlix and UCLA Film & Television Archive. Why does this matter, and what franchise are we talking about? See if you can guess.

Every episode of 21 Beacon Street follows a rigid template. A pre-credits sequence shows a murder or thrilling act of violence. For example, the premiere opens with a moody sequence of a mysterious hitman, in suit and fedora, slipping into a restaurant and taking aim at his victim from behind a rack of wine bottles as the show’s eternal sexy, weary crime-jazz motifs slink along the soundtrack. The killer misses his target and himself gets plugged to fall into a pool of wine.

We’re next presented with the facade of a mansion in a style similar to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and we hear narrator-hero Dennis Chase (Dennis Morgan) say something along the lines of “To save a man’s life, a perfect murder had to be planned. It was conceived and directed from this house.” Then, we see the series’ title and cast.

In 21 Beacon Street‘s first episode, “The Rub Out” by prolific crime writer Robert C. Dennis, the voice-over introduces Chase’s assistants in closeups. “My staff is well-trained. Joanna is beautiful and a Phi Beta Kappa, Brian a law school graduate and ex-marine, Jim a jack of all trades.” In the next episode, Jim’s intro gets altered to “a shrewd dialectician and an inventive genius.”

They won’t be so carefully introduced again. Joanna Keith is played by Joanna Barnes, Brian by Brian Kelly, and Jim by James Maloney. Notice that all the characters, including Dennis Chase, have the same first name as their actor, and two of them never reveal a surname.

Here’s one reason why it’s important for forgotten series like 21 Beacon Street to be exhumed into the digital light. Until now, the old-school reference books on television have unfailingly identified Joanna Barnes’ character as Lola and sometimes called her the secretary, which she clearly isn’t. She never even slits an envelope. “Secretary” would be a standard assumption for the era, but she’s an equal player in the scams, and that’s among the show’s pleasant surprises.

As the beautiful, sexy woman of 21 Beacon Street, Joanna is habitually a pseudo-vamp who uses come-hither charms on the group’s pigeons. In “The Rub Out”, she lures the new hitman to her apartment so he can swallow drugged scotch and get injected with sodium pentothal to spill his plans. When he remembers nothing in the morning beyond how much he drank, she lets him believe they had a whale of a night.

That Joanna is expected to use her sex as a weapon is par for the era’s course, and the uncredited score is always ready to underline the point with a teasing sax, or is it a clarinet? Similar demands aren’t made on tall, handsome Brian, who has an eye for the ladies but never gets to use it. His skills are more two-fisted, as when he masquerades as an Irish boxer to entrap a fixer in “The Pay Off”. That episode’s writer is Tom Gries, who would create The Rat Patrol (1966-68) and write and direct the cult classic Will Penny (1968).

Joanna and Brian’s beautiful and versatile characters on 21 Beacon Street parallel the roles played by Barbara Bain and Martin Landau on Mission: Impossible (1966-73). Now, we’re officially letting the cat out of the bag.

Although he doesn’t receive a creator credit for 21 Beacon Street, Leonard Heideman is the story editor, script supervisor and primary writer whose name appears on the lion’s share of scripts. Heideman seems to have sued Mission: Impossible creator Bruce Geller (who stated he never saw the earlier show) for an out-of-court settlement, and the settlement must have included participation because Heideman (now called Laurence Heath) is credited for no fewer than 20 scripts on Mission: Impossible as of the first season.

The points of comparison are many. The Beacon Street team includes electronics and gadgetry expert Jim, parallel to Greg Morris’ role on Mission: Impossible, who goes about their business with cool, unemotional professionalism. The boss, Chase, also participates in the masquerades and confidence games. They carefully explain what they’re doing more than once so viewers won’t be left behind, and the plan usually comes off like clockwork. Later episodes throw a few spanners into the proceedings.

Another tic in 21 Beacon Street‘s structure is that, as a coda to each episode, Chase teases the audience with a preview of next week’s plot. While that seems unnecessary, it confirms the correct episode order. As early as the first episode’s coda, he uses the word “impossible” to describe the plan. One episode is even called “Nothing Is Impossible”. That one is based on a story by Clayton Rawson, the magician turned mystery writer, and the plot is an ingenious locked-room mystery with an extraterrestrial whiff.

As Mission: Impossible would frequently do, the second episode of 21 Beacon Street claims to be set in another country. In “Safety Deposit”, the team pretends to film a Hollywood movie while stealing love letters from a deposit box in a Mexican bank. Since that’s an outright felony (for a greater good, or at least some bigwig’s good), maybe the script didn’t want to imply that a US bank could be so careless. When they realize an armed guard is watching them, Brian says, “How are Mexican prisons?” and Joanna adds, “Prisons? How are Mexican cemeteries?”

That’s among several episodes that play with media: hidden cameras, infrared filming, monitors, etc. Media was another Mission: Impossible element; of course, all episodes use “acting” as a theme. Another example on 21 Beacon Street is “The Execution”, in which Jim pre-empts a radio signal for a phony broadcast to convince a man that someone’s just been executed. That script is by John Meredyth Lucas on his way to a career as a writer, director, and producer on Ben Casey (1961-66), The Fugitive (1963-67), and Star Trek (1966-69).

In other words, 21 Beacon Street allows us to watch justice served in a para-legal manner through sting operations. Another example: in “The Swindle”, the team stages an elaborate gambling club to fake horse race results and recover thousands of dollars from a crook who bilked money from a lonely widow. It’s the type of plot viewers would later see in “con-the-con-artist” shows like The Rogues (1964-65) and Switch (1975-78). The problem-solving plots of The Equalizer (1985-89), which spawned several further incarnations, are also relevant here.

For the record, I think the best proto-Mission: Impossible plot was an unusual Season One episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. called “The Project Strigas Affair” (24 November 1964). It’s best recalled for starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy a few years prior to Star Trek, and it’s also a perfect Mission: Impossible flim-flam in a foreign country two years before that series premiered.

The Beacon Streeters work more or less within the system and call upon contacts in the police or other organizations, though the scripts emphasize that police can’t be used for some reason. In “The Hostage”, an accountant with a kidnapped wife has been warned against the police. He contacts Beacon Street, and they infiltrate his company, looking for the inside man. That was written by the prolific Jack Laird, whose scripts for dozens of series include M Squad, Ben Casey, Night Gallery, Kojak, and – wait for it – Switch, on which he was even a producer.

One of the standouts of 21 Beacon Street is Heideman/Heath’s unusual “Dilemma”, one of several episodes directed by B-film maestro Jean Yarbrough. It opens with expressionist closeups of Ralph Kirk (Paul Richards), a brilliant modern painter with a persecution complex, who strangles a female art critic and is swiftly found not guilty. His fiancee and promoter, Ruth (Joan Taylor), explains to Chase that Ralph has blurted a confession. Since the principle of double jeopardy protects Ralph, and they can’t come up with another crime to charge him with, the Beacon Streeters string him along to make him snap publicly so he can be committed.

In a fascinating irony, Ralph’s delusion that enemies follow and wiretap and plot against him is exactly what the Beacon team is indeed doing, and his discovery of their evidence triggers the final crisis. Richards, who in fact had a psychology degree, tears into this “psycho” role like a young Harvey Keitel. By the way, the original artwork decorating this episode is courtesy of the Martin Lowitz Gallery; for more info, check this June 1957 article from Time magazine.

Beyond the obvious points, there’s a hidden reason why this “genius/madness” plot of “Dilemma” is disturbing. Neither IMDB nor Wikipedia reveal this information, but a website called Thrilling Detective claims (without citing the source) that Heideman stabbed his wife to death in a psychotic episode in November 1963. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and put away for a while. Rebuilding his career under the name Heath, he wrote for such shows as Hawaii 5-0 and Murder She Wrote in addition to Mission: Impossible. He committed suicide in 2007.

“Dilemma” is part of the final string of episodes in which Beacon Street’s best-laid plans go wrong through unexpected twists or in which they ironically create the situation for crime that they tried to avoid. It took Mission: Impossible longer than one season to learn what 21 Beacon Street figured out in under 13 episodes: that suspense is increased when things don’t go according to plan.

One of the best examples is the final episode, “Close Call”, in which Chase sets himself up as the victim to be murdered in an insurance fraud. He tries to force the murder method on his killer, but Chase’s carefully planned routine gives the killer a different idea that almost works. The last scene isn’t quite a cliffhanger but it’s something of a terrace-hanger.

On top of everything else, 21 Beacon Street offers a lesson in casting and expedience. Maloney’s Jim is a dumpy, balding fellow on the wrong side of middle age, so despite his technical wizardry, he’s the most expendable character. Some episodes drop him, and he’s vanished without a trace by the last handful. As early as the fourth episode, “Double Vision”, they reduce him to a dialogue-free extra holding a camera in one scene. At least he’s always billed in the opening credits, so we hope he got paid. Even in private justice outfits, it pays to look pretty.

The handsome, dapper, authoritative Morgan had been a singer and leading man in Hollywood for three decades. Barnes, who really was Phi Beta Kappa, did lots of television work and later wrote novels. Kelly, who really had been in law school and the Marines, is best known as the dad in Flipper (1964-67). It appears unlikely that Maloney was really an electronics whiz.

Heideman’s concept for 21 Beacon Street goes back a little further than the series itself. His pilot, “Fingerprints”, aired on NBC’s anthology No Warning (aka, Panic!) on 22 June 1958. According to IMDB, a retired agent named Stephen Chase (not Dennis Chase) is tasked by the government with sneaking into a foreign embassy and replacing a set of fingerprints. That’s already pure Mission: Impossible, isn’t it?

Paul Stewart plays Chase. Lola Albright plays Karen Adams, and that sounds like the source of the “Lola” misinformation for Joanna. Brian Kelly and James Maloney both appear. Maloney’s character’s name isn’t given; Kelly’s is called Randy Burke. The core crew is the same who moved on to 21 Beacon Street: producer Al Simon, director Maurice Geraghty, photographer Arch R. Dalzell, editor Monica Collingwood, and art director Archie Bacon. If only that episode were included as a bonus on the DVD.

Val Raset and Harold Schuster also direct episodes of 21 Beacon Street. Geraghty’s wife, Betty Halsey, is credited with one script. Fenton Earnshaw and Jack Kelsey also did scripts. Guests include such familiars as DeForest Kelley, Whit Bissell, Ted de Corsia, John Hoyt, Anthony Caruso, Steve Brodie, Arthur Batanides, Jerry Paris, Paul Langton, Henry Corden, Cyril Delevanti, Barney Phillips, Donna Douglas, Mason Alan Dinehart, Nancy Hsueh, Frances Fong, Harry Bellaver, Fredd Wayne, Alberto Morin and Than Wyenn.

21 Beacon Street aired from July to September 1959 as a summer replacement for NBC’s The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. Someone at rival ABC must have been impressed, for they reran it from December 1959 to March 1960. The UCLA prints on the ClassicFlix DVD are from this ABC period and include the network’s promos. The image looks sharp, but the sound sometimes has a distracting hiss.

While I find 21 Beacon Street fascinating for its ideas and connections, and more so as it goes along, some episodes are a trifle padded, even for half hours. I trace this effect to having everyone repeat the plot points in every plan to make sure all viewers are up to speed. Chase’s frequent voice-overs also rehash what’s happening.

I’ve been in the room with viewers who need everything explained more than once, so my sympathies are with writers of clever shows that expect your attention. Mission: Impossible perfected the formula, but it was already fully present in 21 Beacon Street, and now everyone can see it.