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Peter Graves: Born to Command

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Posted: Friday, March 8, 2013 4:52 pm


    Peter Graves has the calm, carefully deliberate manner of a leader. Indeed, he portrayed many such figures during the course of his career of more than 50 years. Sometimes, as when he played Jim Phelps, the team leader from 1967-73 on TV's hi-tech adventure series Mission: Impossible he was on the side of good. Other times, he was on the side of evil, as when he played a Nazi spy posing as an American flyer in the classic prisoner-of-war film Stalag 17. Regardless of the circumstances, his air of authority is impressive, and persuasive. Ironically, this quality made him perfect for the gag movie, Airplane! and its sequel Airplane II: The Sequel. In the latter film, after a couple of officers aboard a space shuttle have been sucked out of an air lock and the passengers are about to panic, Graves' character seems to know exactly what to do. "Alright, this is the way we're going to play it," Captain Oveur tells a flight attendant . . . before drawing up a detailed plan of action for a basketball game!

    The younger brother of actor James Arness, he was born Peter Aurness on Thursday, March 18, 1926 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Like brother Jim, who is older by 2 years and 10 months, Peter grew up in Minnesota and early was drawn to music. "We are all family-minded," Graves once told a journalist. "When Jim first started acting, he dropped the 'u' out of our family name to make it Arness. So when I got into the same racket, I had to take a family name too. 'Graves' is from my mother's side. Our mother's father played the violin, so did our father's father. They weren't great musicians, but there was always music around our place."

    In his teen years, Peter excelled as an athlete and a saxophonist. He played with a number of bands, both amateur and pro, and by the age of sixteen was a radio announcer at WMIN in Minnesota. "Jim was the one who started out singing," recalled Graves. "I began playing the clarinet and then the sax. At fifteen, I was a full-fledged member of the Musicians Union. I played for local bands in Minneapolis and once in a while there would be a vacancy in some name band playing our city and I'd be hired to fill in.

    Following his brother into the military, Jim would serve two years in the U.S. Army Air Forces: "World War II was on. Jim got out of high school, enlisted and was sent overseas. I was sixteen and got a job on WMIN radio, announcing. Jim was wounded at Anzio. The day I got out of high school I enlisted in the Air Force. I wanted to be sent overseas, too [but] I wasn't."

    When the war was over, Peter took advantage of the G.I. Bill to enroll at the University of Minnesota where he studied drama and met his future wife, 18-year-old Joan Endress. The couple married in 1949, and exactly eleven months later had the first of their three daughters.

    Dr. Frank Whiting, head of U of M's drama department provided Peter with good roles and the young man became hooked. Soon, he wanted to make acting his profession. Following summer stock appearances, he eventually made his way to Hollywood where brother Jim had settled a couple of years earlier.

    "The first time I saw Hollywood, Jim met me at the train," Graves reportedly told Photoplay magazine in 1968. "I told him how willing I was to become a star. Jim said, 'My advice is that you return home on the next train.' He was trying to break in, too, you see, and he wasn't finding it too easy."

    While Peter acquired an agent and made the rounds of the various film studios, his wife took a regular 8-to-5 job to keep food on the table. In the summer of 1950, Graves landed his first movie, Rogue River, a talky little Western involving family relationships and a bank robbery.

    Next, in quick succession, Peter was seen as a military policeman in the mildly amusing WWII comedy, Up Front (1951); as a deserter's blinded younger brother in Fort Defiance (1951); as a radio announcer in a fantasy involving a heavenly-inspired baseball team called Angels in the Outfield (1951); and as a scientist deciphering mysterious messages from outer space in Red Planet Mars (1952).

    Then, in 1952, the handsome 6-foot, 2-inch actor got wind of a film Paramount was producing about POWs and he became focused on winning a key role. However, because he was considered to be the wrong type, his agent had to practically sneak him into the casting office for a reading. The verdict he received sounded adamant and final: "Absolutely not. You are totally wrong for this picture."

    Recalled Graves: "Rarely did you get such a blunt and direct response out of these [casting] people. The guy they were looking for had to look like he could conceivably be a German who is planted in the barracks. I was the All-American boy."

    Luckily, Peter's agent knew Billy Wilder, who was set to direct Stalag 17, and phoned him. After hearing about the young man's acting virtues, Wilder invited Peter and his agent to his home. This was on a Saturday, and come Monday, Graves was given a screen test which he passed with flying colors. "After going around them, I don't think the casting department there ever wanted to get near me," surmised Graves. "I didn't work again at Paramount for more than ten years—until I did Mission: Impossible."

    An excellent blend of drama and comedy, Stalag 17 was nominated for three academy Awards and gave Peter what he has described as "the greatest role of my life." From time to time, he would go on to portray other bad guys with varying shades of malevolence, but none with the cold-bloooded duplicity of his Price character.

    After its wartime hiatus, the television industry resumed a rapid advancement until by the early 1950s it was seriously damaging box office receipts. Dramatic anthology shows were particularly popular on the new medium and Peter guested on a number of these including Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, Studio 57, TV Reader's Digest, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Fireside Theatre, Celebrity Playhouse, Matinee Theatre, Cavalcade of America, Lux Video Theatre, and Climax! At the same time he continued with his film career, primarily in supporting roles in adventure films such as War Paint, East of Sumatra, Beneath the 12 Mile Reef (1953); Killers from Space, The Yellow Tomahawk, The Raid, Black Tuesday (1954); The Long Gray Line, Robbers' Roost, Wichita, The Naked Street, The Night of the Hunter, Fort Yuma, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955); It Conquered the World, Hold Back the Night, Canyon River (1956); Beginning of the End, Bayou, Death in Small Doses (1957); Wolf Larsen (1958); and A Stranger in My Arms (1959).

    He had a small yet significant part in the much praised 1955 release directed by Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter. In this haunting story of good and evil, he played the condemned-to-die cellmate of a deranged evangelist (Robert Mitchum) who feels called to kill women because they drive men to lust. Peter had another interesting role in Canyon River where he first plans to steal George Montgomery's cattle, but then heroically tries to save the herd. He was given star billing in Killers from Space, It Conquered the World and Beginning of the End, all sci-fi cheapies with some rather bizarre situations—in the last of these, he uses audio equipment to combat giant grasshoppers.

    Meanwhile, Peter also found time to play Jim Newton, the owner of the Broken Wheel Ranch in a weekly TV children's drama called Fury, a Western series set in modern times. This was "the story of a horse and the boy who loved him" played respectively by "Beauty" as the elegant black stallion "Fury" and Bobby Diamond as the boy Joey. Hugely successful, the series ran five seasons totaling 114 episodes from 1955 to '60 before going into reruns in syndication. The little dramas enacted often involved the human cast not only with horses, but also with wild animals and nasty crooks.

    "I got a flat salary, but the horse and his trainer, Ralph McCutcheon, got a bigger salary, plus five percent of the show's overall net", Graves stated. Showing his grasp of the realities of the TV business, he added, "But the horse ["Beauty"] was the real star. Without that horse, I wouldn't have made the money I made."

    Brother Jim, meanwhile, was becoming a household name, scoring enormous viewer numbers as Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke. From 1957 to '61 this iconic Western series was the top-rated show in all of TV. Peter who was both proud of his brother's success and a bit envious, once supposedly told a journalist, "I wasn't conscious of being rivals as children—I know the feeling must have been there though, for I see it today in my own children."

    Brother Jim Arness had been under contract to the Wayne-Fellows production company (basically a partnership between John Wayne and producer Robert Fellows). Peter, on the other hand, started out with the uncertainty of being a freelancer, and remained so. He took work as it came up, and that frequently translated into TV projects of varying quality. From 1960 to 1970, he acted in only five theatrical features (1965, A Rage to Live; 1966, Texas Across the River; 1967, The Ballad of Josie; 1968, Sergeant Ryker; 1969, Esercito di cinque uomini [Five Man Army]) while his network TV appearances skyrocketed.

    In addition to being seen as a guest artist on weekly shows like Route 66, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and The Virginian, he starred in two short-lived series of his own, Whiplash (1961), a Western shot in Australia, and Court-Martial (1966), a WWII drama shot in Europe. After this, executive producer Bruce Geller happened to see Peter in the pilot episode of a series that didn't sell about a government agency keeping files on people with unusual skills in the event they might be needed for a special job. Suddenly, the actor was under consideration for something called Mission: Impossible.

    Emmy nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Series after only one season, Mission: Impossible was losing its team leader, Dan Briggs, played by Steven Hill. It was team leader Briggs who received special tape-recorded messages from Washington: "Your mission, Dan, should you decide to accept it, it is . . . ." After outlining the assignment, the recording went on: "As always, should you or any member of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds." Taskmaster Briggs then would select the right operatives for the assignment and draw up a complex plan of action, requiring split-second timing and the strongest of nerves.

    "They said that Steve Hill was going out of it, and they wanted me to do it," recalled Graves. "I knew it was good. Within a day or so, I knew it was the right thing for me." And so it was. As the new leader of the I.M. Force, Graves was in his element as a figure of gravity and authority in the role of a lifetime.

    At first, Peter thought of naming his character Jim Phillips, but there was a network executive by that name so he changed it to Jim Phelps. Next, he wrote a back-story detailing how Phelps had come out of college to serve in the Korean War before going on to a career with a commercial airline. More handsome and athletic than his predecessor, Graves seemed to take a greater part in the execution of the missions, many of which dealt with disrupting the activities of foreign governments in stories imbued with an atmosphere of Cold War intrique. Frequently, the I.M. Force members would be impersonating various authorities in these nations such as doctors, scientists, or military officers.

    Aided by a catchy, pulsating musical theme, Mission became one of the most memorable shows CBS ever broadcast and it made Peter a star, not only in the U.S. but all over the world as the series was dubbed into 15 languages and sold in 71 countries. Even today, while realizing there were always other regular cast members—Barbara Bain, Martin Landau, Greg Morris, Peter Lupus—it is impossible not to think of Peter's face when you recall the series.

    For his performance as James Phelps, Peter was nominated for an Emmy in 1969 and was the winner of a Golden Globe Award in 1970. When production of Mission: Impossible ended in 1973, he spent the rest of the decade in either big-screen films (1975, Sidecar Racers; 1978, High Seas Hijack; 1979, Survival Run, The Clonus Horror) or TV movies (The President's Plane Is Missing, Scream of the Wolf, Where Have All the People Gone, SST: Death Flight, Missile X - Geheimauftrag Neutronenbombe, The Gift of the Magi, Death Car on the Freeway, The Memory of Eva Ryker).

    Of these films, the now prematurely silver-haired actor came across especially well in Scream of the Wolf as an adventure writer stalking an almost superhuman beast. Another of his best roles is seen in The Underground Man with Peter seen as detective Lew Archer who starts out searching for a kidnapped boy and ends up with a case close to home.

    Then came Airplane! a movie unlike anything Peter had ever done. Inspired in part by the serious 1957 drama Zero Hour, Airplane! also lampooned just about every air disaster film ever made by its willingness to not only beg, borrow and steal from a wide variety of sources, but to do it with the complicity of a number of veteran actors (Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Leslie Nielsen, in addition to Graves) who had built their careers on playing strong, stoic character roles.

    "I threw it across the room," Graves remarked when recalling his initial reaction to the Airplane! script. "And about ten minutes after I told my agent no, Howard Koch [Paramount vice-president in charge of production] phoned and said, 'Why don't you come in and talk to the young lads [writers and directors Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker].' So I did, and a while later with fingers crossed, I agreed to do it . . . Well, my wife and I went to the first showing at the Directors Guild and within five minutes, everybody in the audience was falling down and clutching their sides laughing. I said to myself, 'Gee, I'm funny;."

    Immensely successful at the box office, the often hilarious aviation parody earned for the Howard W. Koch production company nearly an $80 million share of receipts, and spawned Airplane II: The Sequel (1982) in which Peter also participated. In recent years, the American Film Institute name Airplane! one of the top ten funniest movies ever.

    "The people who seem to enjoy the picture the most are the airline crews," Graves pointed out. "Every time I get on a plane, they see me and start laughing . . . but one time I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket and a lady and little boy ahead of me kept staring at me, trying to remember where they'd seen me before. Finally, I leaned down to the boy and rattled off one of my lines in Airplane!, the one that goes, 'Son, do you like movies about gladiators?' Well, that lady grabbed that kid by the arm and away they went in a hurry."

    Between 1983 and '89, Peter appeared in a few TV shows (Fantasy Island, Murder, She Wrote, Life with Lucy, Hammer House of Mystery, and Suspense) and a couple of rather routine movies (1987: Number One with a Bullet, If It's Tuesday, It Still Must Be Belgium). The highlight of the period was an epic mini-series The Winds of War, a sprawling account of World War II costing a reported $40 million. A ratings smash, it led to a sequel, War and Remembrance which cost substantially more than the first production yet pulled in fewer viewers. In both productions, Peter played a character named Palmer Kirby who gets caught up in the Holocaust.

    In the late 1980s there was an effort to revive Mission: Impossible, with only Peter Graves brought back from the original show. It never caught on with viewers, however, and died after two seasons totaling 35 episodes. Subsequently, Graves did a few one-time guest shots on series such as The Golden Girls, Burke's Law (the 1994-95 revival which was populated with veteran actors), Diagnosis Murder, and Cold Case. The only recurring TV role he had in later years was that of John "The Colonel" Camden in WB's 7th Heaven.

    One of the actor's greatest resources was his distinctively clear and solid vocal delivery, which earned him a load of voice work. He was the narrator on both Mickey Mouse Works (1999) and House of Mouse (2001). He also hosted 48 episodes of A&E's highly popular series Biography (1994-2006), and narrated the movie, Darkstar (2006). He was last heard in Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust (2009).

    Away from the camera, Peter was the honorary California chairman of the American Cancer Society in 1968 and the honorary national crusade chairman of that group in 1974. When asked about some of his proudest achievements, he placed his marriage and family at the top of the list. "For a long time I lived in a house full of women—wife Joan and our three daughters, Kelly Jean, Claudia, and Amanda—and I thought it was marvelous. I can't think of anything that brings me more happiness than being around loved ones."

    In October of 2009 Peter finally was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Then, on March 14, 2010, just four days short of his 84th birthday, he died of an apparent heart attack outside of his Los Angeles home. He was survived by his wife, Joan, and three daughters.

    Although he struggled for years to establish himself, especially during the '50s when he found himself toiling in numerous sci-fi cheapies, Peter Graves never gave up. Unlike many other actors whose careers fade away as they age, Peter slowly and painstakingly built one success upon another so that by the time he reached retirement age he was more famous than ever. His late-blooming career is a testament not only to his talent, but also to his strength of character—just what you'd expect from someone who was born to command.