Peter Graves Dies: 'Mission: Impossible,' Airplane!'

Julie Hagerty, Lorna Patterson, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves in Airplane!
Julie Hagerty, Lorna Patterson, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves in Airplane!

Peter Graves, the star of TV's Mission Impossible and the airplane pilot with a fondness for little boys in the 1980 comedy hit Airplane!, was found dead today at his home in the Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades. The 83-year-old actor apparently died of natural causes.

Graves was best known for his television work as Mission Impossible's silver-haired, gravely authoritative James Phelps, a role later played by Tom Cruise – minus the silver hair and the grave authority – in the big-screen versions.

Additionally, Graves had a long career in films, beginning in the early 1950s. Among his screen credits are the sci-fier Red Planet Mars (1952); Billy Wilder's World War II drama Stalag 17 (1953), supporting William Holden; John Ford's The Long Gray Line (1956), in a small role; and A Stranger in My Arms (1959), which starred June Allyson and Jeff Chandler.

Peter GravesCuriously, Graves' film career didn't go very far. Considering the types of actors who became stars and second-rank stars in the 1950s, it's unclear why Graves didn't make the cut. I haven't seen many of his '50s movies, but he's particularly good in Stalag 17, coolly and quietly – but decisively – stealing the show from his fellow POWs, including Best Actor Oscar winner William Holden. As so often happens whenever I watch Hollywood movies, I was rooting for the nasty villain in Stalag 17 – thanks to Graves' performance.

Mission Impossible (1967-1973) is only a dim memory for me. As a kid, I remember watching reruns, but the only elements of the show that stuck to mind were Graves' silver hair and the catchy opening credits music. In the late '80s, he played James Phelps once again in a revamped take on the series that lasted two years.

In recent years, Graves kept himself busy with brief appearances on television shows such as House M.D., 7th Heaven, and Cold Case.

He initially turned down the role of the Airplane! pilot Clarence Oveur who says stuff like, “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators? . . . Have you ever seen a grown man naked?"

“I read it and thought, 'Gee, this is dangerous,'” he told the Los Angeles Times' Susan King. “It was in terrible taste . . . I read it and thought, 'I can't do this.'"

King reports that “about 10 minutes later, he received a call from the film's producer Howard Koch, who asked if he would meet with the young filmmakers [writer-directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker]. 'I went in and said, “You should have Harvey Korman do it, he would be perfect.” They said, “We want somebody of your stature and dignity” and so forth who plays it absolutely straight. They had Bob Stack doing the same thing, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen and many others. So I said OK. They say you are supposed to stretch as an actor, so let's go stretch it.'"

Photo: Airplane! (Paramount)

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