Peter Graves dead; 'Mission: Impossible,' 'Airplane!' star

Actor, best known for his roles in the televised spy thriller, the spoof movie "Airplane!" and Billy Wilder's "Stalag 17," has died in his California home, according to authorities.
By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010

Peter Graves, 83, the stern-faced, square-jawed film and television actor who often portrayed figures of ability and authority, including in the "Mission: Impossible" television series, died March 14 at his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

His death was attributed to an apparent heart attack.

In a career that stretched back to the 1950s, Mr. Graves made more than 50 movies, including the comedy classic, "Airplane!" and he acted in countless television series and miniseries.

As American secret agent Jim Phelps in "Mission Impossible," Mr. Graves was called on for daunting tasks each week by the Impossible Missions Force.

The request for his services always began with the resonant, much-repeated catchphrase: "Your mission, should you choose to accept it..." Ever cool and competent, Mr. Graves' secret agent chose to accept.

An Air Force veteran and champion high school athlete who stood an imposing 6 feet 2 inches, Mr. Graves let down neither the task force nor audiences during the course of more than 140 episodes.

The show ran from September 1966 to March 1973. As a member of the cast and leader of the secret task force for all but the first year, Mr. Graves accepted and completed missions as vital as they were suspenseful. The show has been described as one of television's most watched, and Mr. Graves reprised his small-screen life as a secret agent when the show was revived.

Often, his characters on film and on TV demonstrated the air of competence and command that appeared part of his nature.

Many of his portrayals were of doctors or military men. Some were leaders in other fields. The very seriousness conveyed in many of his performances was exploited in the 1980 comedy "Airplane!" and its sequel.

As the pilot, a role to which he seemed well-suited, Mr. Graves won plaudits by playing against type. Parodying himself, he satirized the stiff and strait-laced figures he so frequently depicted.

Mr. Graves excelled in the kind of verbal buffoonery that provoked mirth by such techniques as confusing his character's name, Clarence Oveur, with the air traffic control phrase: "Clearance, Over."

Such demonstrations of comic skills appeared to detract in no way from the obvious impression of knowledgeability he gave in his long-running role as host of cable television's "Biography" series.

Mr. Graves was born Peter Aurness on March 18, 1926, in Minneapolis, the younger brother of the famed actor James Arness (who modified the family name). The family's roots traced to Germany and Norway. His mother was described as a journalist; his father had a job in business. Graves, the name he later chose, was that of a grandparent.

As a teenager Mr. Graves was a musician, a radio announcer and a state champion hurdler. He enlisted in the Air Force, served a two-year tour in the United States and returned to his home town to enroll under the GI Bill at the University of Minnesota.

There he majored in drama and met Joan Endress, whom he married in 1950. They had three children.

One of his early movie roles was in "Stalag 17," in which he played a spy embedded among downed American airmen in a German POW camp during World War II.

His success embodying that hateful role was said to have curdled his career prospects in Hollywood for some time thereafter.

Whatever the obstacles, his career appeared to thrive on television. For 34 episodes of the series "Whiplash," he played an American who went to 1850s Australia to set up a stagecoach business.

He also took parts on such well-known series as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "Route 66."

His work as Jim Phelps in "Mission: Impossible" was honored with a Golden Globe Award in 1971, and he had also been nominated for Emmy and Golden Globe awards as Phelps.

Last year, again demonstrating wit and self-awareness, he showed up in a series of videos, made on behalf of AirTran Airways, in which he wore his captain's uniform and referred to the many "Airplane!" lines that have become cult classics.

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