It’s a case of popular culture meeting the pastime. An unusual photograph of Johnny Bench has been making the rounds on the Internet in recent weeks. It’s actually a black-and-white still of Bench making a cameo appearance on an episode of the old TV show, Mission Impossible.
The episode, which first aired on Feb. 6, 1971, is titled The Catafalque, a word with which I was previously unfamiliar. According to IMDB, a catafalque is a raised platform that is used to support a casket during a funeral service. Providing us with further assistance, IMDB supplies the following description of the 1971 episode:
“In one of the IMF’s most audacious plans yet the team blatantly frames their victim and attempts to snatch the body of a deceased leader literally from under the noses of the honor guards. It’s all part of Jim’s plan to infuriate an official into revealing a sensitive document the US government wants to get its hands on.”
Bench is credited as “The Captain of the Guards,” so we can only surmise that he is the leader of the group of honor guards who are watching over the dead body. Although Bench does not speak in the cameo, he clearly captures the attention of Mission Impossible stars Peter Graves (who portrays James Phelps) and the lovely Lesley Ann Warren (who portrays Dana Lambert). They are giving Bench a combined look of caution and contempt, as if he is to be avoided at all costs. Based on the angle of the photograph, I would venture a guess that Bench does not see the two agents, at least not yet.
So how was it that Johnny Bench, star catcher for the Cincinnati Reds, made it onto the set of Mission Impossible? Well, this was February of 1971, so we can assume the filming took place sometime in the fall of 1970, or just after Bench was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. In 1970, Bench led the National League with 45 home runs and 148 RBIs, and compiled an OPS of .932, a staggering figure for a catcher. What better way to drive publicity for a show than to strategically place a well-known, headline-making athlete right in the middle of an episode?
Additionally, Mission Impossible executives might have thought that Bench had a real future in acting. After all, Bench has always been outgoing and quotable. When he wants to, he can be as charming and charismatic as any current or former athlete.
As it turned out, Bench did have a small future in Hollywood. Two years later, he would make an appearance, this time in a speaking role, in an episode of The Partridge Family called “I Left My Heart in Cincinnati.” Having never seen the episode, I can only guess that during a concert stop in Cincinnati, the Partridge band runs into Bench, who delivers the following line: “Would you care for a drink?” I would also have to assume that Bench portrays himself. Then again, I could be wrong.
Bench’s appearances on The Partridge Family and Mission Impossible (two shows as different from each other as can be) would lay the groundwork for future work in TV. Bench eventually became the host of The Baseball Bunch, a children’s program that featured skits designed to teach baseball and life lessons.
After a long layoff, Bench is now returning to the Hollywood scene. He will appear as a major league scout in the 2013 release, Easy Rider: The Ride Back. And no, it’s not a sequel to the Peter Fonda/Dennis Hopper/Jack Nicholson counterculture classic from 1969.
And to think, it all started for Mr. Bench with a leer from Lesley Ann Warren.