An appreciation: How Peter Graves made his mission possible

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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For more: Actor Peter Graves dies at 83


Comments (69 total) Add your comment
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  • M Berry

    A nice appreciation, but while stating that Graves “tried to have a feature film career” (with the implications of that phrasing), how could you fail to mention his pivotal and very well-played role in Stalag 17?

    • Bix Dugan

      Great point M. I will miss him, I grew up watching “Fury” on television and loved hime in films including “It Conquered the World.” Anything he was in was a better, classier production because of it, and he elevated every role. RIP Peter!

      • Floggershiitoo

        We would love to know what job you were able to get that allows you to work at home. There are svereal unemployed people on Branch out that are looking for jobs. If the company is still hiring, may be some of them can apply as well.

    • Ken Tucker

      You’re right; I will add. Thank you.

      • model citizen

        While you’re adding that Ken, can you subtract the spam from this site??

      • Wickeddoll

        Hey Ken – your article was quoted here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34276015/vp/35883136#35883136

        Cool.

      • Kamaludeen

        The off-ice stuff is always good to see, even dunirg the season. Personally, I don’t have a Twitting account, or whatever you kids call it. So any tweets you post are news to me! Keep it all coming! Please and thank you.

  • Lindy

    I grew up in the 60’s watching MI– RIP Mr Graves and thank you for all the good shows!!

    • Teresa

      I watched MI when first on and now watching (Tivo) it everynight on ALN-nice t see again how technology has come along. Also That music by Lalo Schifrin along with I Love Lucy theme and a couple of others—added to the show itself

  • swthompson

    Let’s not forget Fury which ran for over 100 episodes and the British/American produced show called Court Martial which detailed trials of JAG lawyers long before JAG.

    • Ken Tucker

      You’re right–now that you mention it, I actually remember watching Fury on Saturday mornings–thanks very much.

  • David Fleetwood

    I remeber him in the seris FURY as the rancher with the small son named Joey and the Big Black horse that the little boy could ride

  • Robert M

    He also co-starred in Black Tuesday with Edward G. Robinson.That was a great movie.

    • Arlene

      No one you know… but someone who knew your date! October 20, 2011 I knew a caerlss, actor William who fits your description perfectly. He was my neighbor in a boarding house almost a decade ago. He’s a piece of work. Consider yourself lucky, Kate!

  • harry

    R.I.P. Peter Graves you lived a full life.

    • Phil Nugent

      “Mission: Impossible” was on for so long that, in the ’70s, I felt as if I’d grown up with the show and knew it inside and out, even though it wasn’t until 1995 that I caught a few reruns from the first season and learned that it started out with Stephen Hill as the team leader. Not to take anything away from Graves, but I found the show to be interesting in a more compelling way with Hill as the boss; he had the same mixture of savvy hyper-competence and grouchy impatience that he later brought to “Law & Order”, and he made it seem as if his character had a background that had shaped him and a personal stake in things. But if the ultimate key to the show’s success was the robotic facelessness of the characters–the way they seemed to be just cogs in the Cold War espionage machine, with nothing in their lives or on their minds besides accomplishing the task at hand–then swapping Hill for Graves was probably the most important (maybe the only important) development in the show’s seven-year run.

  • TorontoTom

    I certainly hope the boneheads at the Academy include him in the In Memoriam segment at next year’s Oscars and don’t deem as him as “too television”.

    • Wickeddoll

      Good point – I *still* can’t believe they skipped Farrah and went for Jacko, who barely ever tried acting.

  • kvnwlbrn

    …and meanwhile, back at th’ ranch…Pete’s chewin’ on a branding iron. R.I.P. P. Graves

  • jeb

    Great point about Stalag 17 ….

  • mike cullen

    you have clearance,clarance at the pearly gates.roger that.

  • bedtimeforbonzo

    And Graves lent gravitas to what was once A&E’s signature show — Biography.

    Class act.

    Never knew he was the brother of James Arness until reading his obit. Loved “Gunsmoke.”

  • Lady Gaga 4Ever

    Never heard of him. Therefore, he is culturally irrelevant.

    • ken

      and who,,if I may ask, are you !!!

      • Lady Gaga 4Ever

        I am a goddess walking amongst mere mortals. You could only dream of being as young and culturally (and demographically) relevant as I.

    • styxrox69

      You have never heard of him? Wow. There is a send up. This moron has never heard of him therefore he is culturally irrelevant. Go gaga yourself 4 ever, please

    • Gary

      To LadyGaga4ever –
      Peter Graves was a solid & dependable actor who contributed to several media over five decades. But that is irrelevant? He is also an icon for his roles in Stalag, M.I. & Airplane I & II. Your idol, Gaga is talented, but probably will be forgotton in 2 years, as most fads are. If she hangs in there and survives in the biz for 50 years, more power to her. But imagine if, upon her death, some tween writes, “I never heard of her, therefore she is irrelevant.”

    • eZe

      Your “user name” explains your disrespectful comment gaga lover. But then again, the world needs idiotic blurbs like yours to remind the rest of us how stupid one can sound when speaking (typing) without thinking.

      My thoughts are with the family as they celebrate the life of their loved one, and with the fans as they remember his contribution to the arts.

    • Matt

      Ah, the hubris of the young and clueless.

      Peter Graves had more talent in his little finger than Lady Gaga has in her whole body and all those cruddy outfits she wears. Get a clue.

      • Issaaka

        Sorry, you also need: from circuits.net.pollers imropt EPollI also tried the same test on a monster 2x quad core xeon 5520httperf –hog –timeout=60 –client=0/1 –server=localhost –port=10000 –uri=/ –rate=400 –send-buffer=4096 –recv-buffer=16384 –num-conns=40000 –num-calls=1 Maximum connect burst length: 1Total: connections 40000 requests 40000 replies 40000 test-duration 100.001 sConnection rate: 400.0 conn/s (2.5 ms/conn, FD_SETSIZE; limiting max. # of open files to FD_SETSIZEMaximum connect burst length: 40Total: connections 40000 requests 39975 replies 20859 test-duration 114.926 sConnection rate: 348.0 conn/s (2.9 ms/conn, <=26959 concurrent connections) Connection time [ms]: min 233.0 avg 6634.8 max 72470.5 median 3327.5 stddev 9396.5 Connection time [ms]: connect 4989.3 Connection length [replies/conn]: 1.000Request rate: 347.8 req/s (2.9 ms/req) Request size [B]: 62.0Reply rate [replies/s]: min 0.0 avg 189.6 max 1384.3 stddev 392.4 (22 samples) Reply time [ms]: response 3230.8 transfer 0.0 Reply size [B]: header 38.0 content 5.0 footer 0.0 (total 43.0) Reply status: 1xx=0 2xx=20859 3xx=0 4xx=0 5xx=0CPU time [s]: user 2.43 system 112.48 (user 2.1% system 97.9% total 100.0%) Net I/O: 28.7 KB/s (0.2*10^6 bps)Errors: total 19141 client-timo 583 socket-timo 0 connrefused 0 connreset 18558 Errors: fd-unavail 0 addrunavail 0 ftab-full 0 other 0

    • Bix Dugan

      What’s a Lady YaYa? Sounds like some kinda feminine hygiene product. Guess I just don’t watch enough eMpTyVee…

    • genius

      Ever heard of research? Or do you just want everyone else do your homework?

  • ken

    I also was addicted to tv when M I was on and tried to catch every episode,,loved the Airplane films and generally enjoyed Mr Graves work, He was an actors actor who never took himself too seriously, and that is a lesson for us all..R I P. Mr Graves, I am convinced you will suucceed in this next mission.

    • Bobby’s Robot

      They’ve been showing re-runs of M:I on a channel called American Life – lots of fun to see them again.

  • jezoebel

    MST3K also riffed another Peter Graves film PARTS: THE CLONUS HORROR, although that one was more of a supporting role, but Mike and the ‘bots kept the Biography riffs coming.

  • MaryA

    Awww…so sorry to hear about his passing – condolences to his family. He was so very handsome. My husband and I are enjoying reruns of MI which we really enjoy; a smart program and he was surely talented. He also did voice in a Disney World space show (Fla) don’t forget. Someone should bring MI back to tv.

    • Reza

      Yes keep this information cmnoig but why do you not post anything about the Stanley Cup finals? I know this is a Rangers blog but it is the finals and it is a great series. Would love to discuss topics about the finals. How awesome is Chris Pronger? If the Rangers got him I would get a jersey the next day.

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