Thursday 19 April 2018

Peter Graves

An actor whose career spanned almost 60 years but is best remembered for a classic comedy and a spy franchise

Peter Graves, who died last Sunday aged 83, appeared in a multitude of films and television shows during a career which spanned nearly 60 years, but will be remembered principally for his roles as a spymaster in the TV series Mission: Impossible and as a pilot in the spoof disaster movie Airplane! (1980).

In Mission: Impossible he was Jim Phelps, leader of a special unit of spies and saboteurs. Each episode began with agent Phelps listening to a tape-recording of instructions which detailed his unit's latest mission; if any member of the team were captured, it said, the government would "disavow any knowledge of your actions". The tape self-destructed within seconds of being played.

The show, screened by CBS from 1967 to 1973, proved highly popular, and in 1971 Graves won a Golden Globe award. When ABC revived it between 1988 and 1990, he was the only original member of the cast to feature.

Airplane! -- written and directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker -- is regarded as one of the finest comedies ever made. A satire on the disaster movie, it concerns a commercial airliner in which many of the passengers as well as the plane's pilots succumb to food poisoning. Graves plays the captain, Clarence Oveur, and delivers some of the film's most memorable lines when a young boy, Joey, visits the cockpit. Captain Oveur asks: "Joey, you ever been up in a cockpit before?" The excited boy replies: "No sir, I've never been up in a plane before."

A paternal, deadpan Oveur then asks his increasingly mystified visitor: "Joey, do you ever hang round men's gymnasiums?... Joey, have you ever seen a grown man naked?... Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?... Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?"

When Graves first saw the script he was appalled, telling his agent to suggest that the film makers find a comedian for the role. He was eventually persuaded to change his mind; the scene with Joey works so well precisely because Graves, far from being predatory or camp, exudes the gravitas of the spymaster from Mission: Impossible.

Airplane!, which cost only $3.5m to make, took more than $80m in the US alone. Two years later Graves reprised his role in Airplane II: The Sequel.

Graves was born Peter Aurness in Minneapolis on March 18, 1926 and educated at the city's Southwest High School, where he was a gifted athlete and clarinet player. He served for two years in the US Air Force before going to the University of Minnesota, where he studied drama. Peter's elder brother was James Arness (he had ditched the 'u' in the family name), who found fame as Matt Dillon in the television series Gunsmoke; and when Peter followed him to Hollywood he decided to call himself Graves -- the surname of his maternal grandfather -- to avoid any confusion.

Graves secured parts in a number of forgettable movies, among them It Conquered the World and Beginning of the World. He first came to public attention in the Fifties television series Fury, about the adventures of a boy and his horse, and in 1953 won plaudits for his portrayal of a Nazi spy in Billy Wilder's prisoner-of-war drama Stalag 17.

In 1955 he appeared in John Ford's The Long Gray Line; Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter; and Otto Preminger's The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell.

Graves's television appearances included Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the miniseries The Winds of War (1983), War and Remembrance (1988), and Fantasy Island (1978-83). He also presented a number of programmes about science and, for the Arts and Entertainment Network's Biography series, narrated programmes about the lives of famous figures.

Peter Graves married, in 1950, his college sweetheart, Joan Endress, with whom he had three daughters.

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