Peter Graves, who died on Sunday at age 83, is being remembered this morning primarily for two achievements: As the star of Mission: Impossible and as a good sport spoofing himself in the Airplane! movies. But his story is more interesting than that.
Yes, Graves was the right actor at the right time to lead the motley crew of operatives on Mission: Impossible, a James Bond-era adventure series that aired at a time when such dramas could be presented without irony. Although not without flecks of light humor (mostly from the sparks provided by the slinky twosome Martin Landau and Babara Bain), M:I was even able to pull off the “Your mission, should you choose to accept it” shtick with a straight face because Graves was, well, a gravely serious hero as Jim Phelps, leader of a secret government organization.
When M:I first aired on CBS between 1967 and 1973, it was still possible to present impossible missions seriously right alongside parodies of exactly the same sort of show — Mel Brooks’ Get Smart! coexisted on NBC at the same time.
Before Mission: Impossible, though, Graves had led an uneven, bumpy career. He’d come to Hollywood in the shadow of his more-famous brother, James Arness, who became an even bigger TV legend as the star of Gunsmoke, the most popular and longest-running Western of its era. Graves even changed his last name (it was his maternal grandfather’s name) to distinguish himself from his brother.
Not that they didn’t work in the same genre sometimes. In the late ’50s, he starred in a popular kid’s Western show about a boy and his horse, called Fury. Graves headed up an early-’60s Western, Whiplash, which was both typical of the era — check out the stagecoach and the Frankie Laine-style theme song — and distinctive (it was set in Australia, not the Old West):
Graves had a feature-film career, and while he never attained A-list leading-man status, his resume included notable appearances in good movies such as Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955) and two Otto Premingers, Stalag 17 (1953) and The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955). But he struggled to rise above the kind of low-budget junk that would become fodder for ridicule on Mystery Science Theater 3000, movies such as Killers from Space and It Conquered the World.
The final phase of Graves’ career was one he entered into unwillingly at first. The story has often been told that when he was sent the script for the first Airplane! movie, he didn’t want to do it, thought it was in bad taste, didn’t get that it was more of an affectionate send-up of his granite-hard delivery than an outright humilation of it.
Once Airplane! became a hit, though, Graves had pulled off one of the best Hollywood tricks: Instead of being an object of ridicule for his bad B-movies, he proved himself a guy who could not merely take a joke but deliver one with fine deadpan timing.
Which led to his stint as host of A&E’s Biography, a series that became known in part for the sound of his deep, grainy voice. He’d come full circle, and was the subject of a Biography episode himself in 1997. Some readers might remember him for his more recent recurring role as Stephen Collins’ military dad in 7th Heaven.
Peter Graves’ career stands as an example of the way a smart, dexterous actor can survive decades of tough Hollywood life and emerge looking as he did in his prime: smooth, cool, and dashing, making it all look easy. It wasn’t, which makes his work all the more impressive.
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