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'Mission: Impossible' star Peter Graves dies in LA

Published:Tuesday | March 16, 2010 | 12:00 AM


Peter Graves, whose calm and intelligent demeanour was a good fit for the intrigue of Mission Impossible as well as the satire of the Airplane films, has died.

Graves passed away Sunday just a few days before his 84th birthday outside his home in Los Angeles, publicist Sandy Brokaw said. Graves was returning from brunch with his wife of nearly 60 years and his family when he had what Graves' doctor believed was a heart attack, Brokaw said.

Graves first gained the attention of many baby boomers with the 1950s TV series Fury, but remained best known for the role of Jim Phelps, leader of a gang of special agents who battled evil conspirators in TV's Mission: Impossible.

Normally cast as a hero, he turned in an unforgettable performance early in his career as the treacherous Nazi spy in Billy Wilder's 1953 prisoner-of-war drama Stalag 17.

Masterfully lampooned

He also masterfully lampooned his straight-arrow image when he portrayed bumbling airline pilot Clarence Oveur in the 1980 disaster movie spoof Airplane!

Graves appeared in dozens of films and a handful of television shows in a career of nearly 60 years.

The authority and trust he projected made him a favourite for commercials late in his life, and he was often encouraged to go into politics.

"He had this statesmanlike quality," Brokaw said. "People were always encouraging him to run for office."

Graves was preceded in stardom by his older brother James Arness, who played Marshal Matt Dillon on TV's Gunsmoke.

Born Peter Aurness, Graves adopted his grandfather's last name to avoid confusion with his older brother, who had dropped the 'U' from the family name.

Graves' career began with cheaply made exploitation films like It Conquered the World, in which he battled a carrot-shaped monster from Venus, and Beginning of the World, in which he fought a giant grasshopper.

He later took on equally formidable human villains each week on Mission: Impossible.

Every show began with Graves, as agent Phelps, listening to a tape of instructions outlining his team's latest mission and explaining that if he or any of his agents were killed or captured "the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions".

The tape always self-destructed within seconds of being played.

The show ran on CBS from 1967 to 1973 and was revived on ABC from 1988 to 1990 with Graves back as the only original cast member.

The actor credited clever writing for the show's success.

"It made you think a little bit and kept you on the edge of your seat because you never knew what was going to happen next," he once said.

Other roles

He also played roles in such films as John Ford's The Long Gray Line and Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, as well as The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, Texas Across the River and The Ballad of Josie.

Graves' first television series was the children's Saturday morning show, Fury, about an orphan and his untamed black stallion. Filmed in Australia, it lasted six years on NBC.

In his later years, Graves brought his white-haired eminence to public television as host of Discover: The World of Science and A&E's Biography series.

He noted during an interview in 2000 that he made his foray into comedy somewhat reluctantly.

Film-makers Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker had written a satire on the airplane-in-trouble movies, and they wanted Graves and fellow handsome actors Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen and Robert Stack to spoof their serious images.

All agreed, but Graves admitted to nervousness. On the one hand, he said, he considered the role a challenge, "but it also scared me".

"I thought I could lose a whole long acting career," he recalled.

Airplane became a box-office smash, and Graves returned for Airplane II, The Sequel.

Graves was a champion hurdler in high school in Minnesota, as well as a clarinet player in dance bands and a radio announcer.

After two years in the Air Force, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota as a drama major and worked in summer stock before following his brother west to Hollywood.

He found enough success there to send for his college sweetheart, Joan Endress. They were married in 1950 and had three daughters - Kelly Jean, Claudia King and Amanda Lee - and six grandchildren.