In 1971, Lynda Day George joined the cast of the popular television series Mission: Impossible as Lisa Casey, mistress of disguises. “I absolutely loved doing Mission because every episode was different and they were all fun,” Lynda, 76, tells Closer.

The actress, who was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the role, likes to think that she helped usher in a new kind of female protagonist on the Cold War spy series. “I think roles for women started becoming more individualized and more real than they had before,” she says. “They started to realize that there was more to casting women than just needing a girl for the part.”

Beyond Mission: Impossible, Lynda’s body of work includes appearances on a host of classic television series, including Route 66, Mannix, The Fugitive, The Love Boat, Wonder Woman, Murder, She Wrote and the seminal miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots. She also costarred with her second husband, the late actor Christopher George, in several famous cult classics, including 1977’s Day of the Animals. Today, this mom of two (and proud grandma!) splits her time between Los Angeles and Washington state.

What was it like finding out you’d landed your role on Mission: Impossible?

“That was when I realized I was really becoming an actress. My agent kept explaining to me that it wasn’t just a role, it was joining the series. I couldn’t believe it! I had just finished a show and had plans for another show the week after doing Mission: Impossible, so it just still didn’t seem like a real possibility.”

What do you think of the modern Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible movies?

“It’s such a totally different Mission: Impossible. I think Tom Cruise does a fine job as the character, but I didn’t recognize it as the Mission: Impossible I knew.”

Lynda Day George TVs Mission Impossible' Star Compares Her Show To Tom Cruise Film Franchise
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Lynda Day George and Tom Cruise.

Did you always want to become an actress?

No. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a doctor or a healer. It was my mom that changed my outlook. When I was 12, she decided that I should enter a beauty contest — age had nothing to do with anything back then.

But you were so young!

“Yes, and quickly I discovered that walking in a bathing suit and high heels is not really the kind of thing that a person ought to be doing! [Laughs] I am sure that I fell at least three times before I got on stage. But I walked out and tried not to look at anybody … and I made the cut! That led to modeling.”

Do you remember your big modeling break?

“I think it was a Dove soap commercial. It was actually a lot of fun.”

Were you still modeling when you met your husband, Christopher George?

“Yes, we were both with the same agency, Eileen Ford. We got to do a bunch of things together, and we would have lunch or dinner together. We were really good friends then, but then we did a film together in Brazil and I just fell madly in love with him. It was really magical.”

Aw, that’s so sweet! You also both costarred with John Wayne in the 1970 western Chisum. What was John like?

“John Wayne was astonishing. He was an idol of mine. He walked up behind me, and I turned and saw him and started to cry! I was so excited and overtaken by joy at seeing this man I had watched in the movies since I was a kid.”

What did John think of your reaction?

“He said, ‘Whoa, what happened?’ I couldn’t think of anything to say because it was like the Statue of Liberty just said hi to me. Then he just laughed and gave me a big ol’ hug. From then on, he would tease me on the set by stepping on the back of my skirt or tipping the back of my hat forward.”

You and your husband went on to act in a number of films together. Was it hard to work and live together?

“Oh, no. I would help him with his lines, and he would help me with mine. We just loved the idea of working together. It was perfectly natural for us and we had so much fun together.”

You lost Christopher to a heart attack when he was just 52. That must have been terrible. How did you survive?

“I think I survived because of our son and daughter. It was a really horrifying experience, losing him like that. My son, Nick, was such a pillar and a great part of my healing process. All the people we knew, they were all incredibly comforting and kind. That period of time, some of it is still blank. I remember standing in the parking lot of the hospital screaming, asking God why he did this.”

Do you have any advice for other people dealing with the loss of a spouse?

“I would say, first, know that there’s a reason. There are things in this life that we have to learn and we have to experience or we won’t learn. That’s the only thing I can say. Afterward, there’s another path that you have to get on and keep going. Do not stop.”

Did any of your children follow you and Christopher into acting?

“No, but our grandson, whose name is also Christopher George, did. Every time I see him, he looks more and more like Chris. It’s wonderful, because it’s like I get to see him all over again. He has a really good heart and is very straightforward, just like Chris was.”

Do you have any other grandchildren?

“I have a granddaughter named Sarah who is graduating high school next year.”

You left acting for a while to raise your family. Would you like to return?

“Yes, I’ve done a few appearances here and there and I’ve worked in theater. I really want to get back and do some good work. I feel like I could really make a difference, so any good role sounds delicious.”

What are you most proud of in your life?

“Definitely my kids and the things they are doing. I’m also proud of being alive right now. I’m happy to be here and proud of who we are as a nation. I think we’re fortunate to be here.”

What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned so far?

“That’s a tough one. I have had two wonderful husbands who passed. I’ve had parents who have passed. I have had incredible people in my life, so I would say that the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to love unconditionally.”