Peter Graves

Peter Graves
Peter Graves
Peter Graves
Peter Graves

Peter Graves was born in 1926 in Minnesota.   His older brother was the “Gunsmoke” star, James Arness.   One of his first major film roles was in the World War Two drama “Stalag 17”.   He starred in the very popular television series “Mission Impossible” and also starred in the 1980 cult classis “Airplane”.   Peter Graves died in 2010.

Ronald Bergan’s “Guardian” obituary:

Despite his long career as a serious actor in dozens of films and television shows, Peter Graves, who has died aged 83, might be most remembered for a role that lampooned his square-jawed, stolid screen persona. As the captain of a plane heading for disaster in the spoof movie Airplane! (1980), Graves got laughs by playing it as straight as his other roles. (Although his roles in a number of trashy, low-budget science fiction movies in the 1950s had produced unintentional laughs.)

Audiences around the world were also familiar with Graves as the tall, gruff, deep-voiced, silver-haired Jim Phelps, head of the IMF (Impossible Missions Force), an elite American espionage group, in the TV series Mission: Impossible (1967-73). He won a Golden Globe in the role in 1971.

The show famously opened with the words: “Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it, is …” Following the briefing, Phelps was told: “As usual, should you or any member of your IM Force be captured or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your existence. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim.” After the puff of smoke cleared, Phelps always accepted the mission, usually involving some un-American foreign power.

Graves was very proud of – and proprietorial towards – Phelps, and when the big-screen version of Mission: Impossible (1996), starring Tom Cruise, was released, Graves was aggrieved that the character played by Jon Voight used the same name. “I am sorry that they chose to call him Phelps. They could have solved that very easily by either having me in a scene in the very beginning, or reading a telegram from me saying, ‘Hey boys, I’m retired, gone to Hawaii. Thank you, goodbye, you take over now’,” Graves remarked.

Born Peter Aurness in Minnesota, of Norwegian-German stock, he was the son of Rolf Cirkler Aurness, a businessman, and Ruth Duesler, a journalist. His older brother, the actor James Arness, also made his name in a TV series (Gunsmoke). After two years in the US air force, Graves studied drama at the University of Minnesota.

His first credited film roles were as a confused youngster in Rogue River (1951) and as Dane Clark’s blind brother in the western Fort Defiance (1951). In 1952, Graves featured in The Congregation, produced by the Protestant Film Commission, an evangelical organisation, and had the leading role in Red Planet Mars, a McCarthyite tract in the guise of a Christian science fiction film. Graves played a scientist who gets messages from Mars, which pretends to be a utopian society but is controlled by Soviet agents, setting out to destroy the freedom of the US. As a result, Christian revolutionaries overthrow the communist government in Russia.

Graves’s blond, rather bland good looks were brilliantly used by Billy Wilder in Stalag 17 (1953), revolving around a German informer masquerading as an American PoW. The director’s brother, W Lee Wilder, who churned out low-grade science fiction movies, then cast Graves in Killers from Space (1954) as a nuclear scientist captured by aliens (kitted out in hooded sweatshirts, mittens and eyes made out of ping-pong balls), who manages to save Earth from them.

In It Conquered the World (1956) and Beginning of the End (1957), Graves battled against a Venusian and giant (back-projected) grasshoppers. He then reverted to treachery in a series of B-westerns: War Paint (1953), The Yellow Tomahawk (1954), Robbers’ Roost (1955) and Canyon River (1956).

But, in 1955, Graves did manage to work in four excellent movies, though in minor roles. In Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita, he played Morgan Earp, brother of Wyatt (Joel McCrea), and he appeared as military men in John Ford’s The Long Gray Line and Otto Preminger’s The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. He also had a small but key role in Charles Laughton’s haunting The Night of the Hunter. As Ben Harper, who shares a prison cell with a “fire and brimstone” preacher (Robert Mitchum), he talks in his sleep about the hidden $10,000 he has stolen from a bank, thus setting the evil preacher on the scent of the money.

In the 1960s, Graves’s stern face was seldom off the TV screen. He started the decade with 34 episodes of an Australian western series called Whiplash, in which he played an American, Christopher Cobb, who established the first stagecoach line in Australia in the 1850s. He continued mostly in TV westerns, and the odd film, until he hit the jackpot with Mission: Impossible.

Jim Abrahams, who wrote, directed and produced Airplane! with the Zucker brothers, David and Jerry, thought that Mission: Impossible “was just so stupid and was great to send up”. They had the wit to cast the straight-as-a-die Graves as Captain Oveur – much corny play is made of the character’s name and that of his co-pilot, Roger Murdock, such as “Roger, Roger” and “Over, Oveur.” Oveur is also at the helm with a young boy, Joey, whom he asks questions such as: “You ever seen a grown man naked?”; “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”; and “Have you ever been to a Turkish prison?”

It’s hard to believe that audiences ever took Graves seriously again, but they did and he returned to a new series of Mission: Impossible from 1988 to 1990. He also hosted more than 50 episodes (between 1994 and 2006) of Biography, in which he sounded like an authority on every subject, whether they were artists, politicians, generals or film stars.

From 1997 to 2007, Graves made a number of guest appearances as John “The Colonel” Camden, the grandfather in the squeaky-clean Christian family in the TV series 7th Heaven. A devout Christian himself, Graves is survived by Joan, his wife since 1950, and by three daughters.

• Peter Graves, actor, born 18 March 1926; died 14 March 2010

The above “Guardian” obituary can also be accessed online here.

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