An apparent heart attack has claimed Peter Graves just shy of his 84th birthday. One’s point of reference for the late Mr. Graves is probably a generational thing. Those from Gen X and beyond probably knew him best either as the host of A&E’s Biography or for spoofing his usual heroic roles in Airplane! (1980) and the delightfully titled Airplane II: The Sequel (1982). But for those of us who grew up on Mission: Impossible, wherein he starred from 1967 to 1973, he will always be Jim Phelps, the leader of the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), who got his orders from soon-to-self-destruct tapes that began, “Good morning, Mr. Phelps.”
I haven’t seen the show for decades, but I have fond memories of the Swiss-watch-like precision of its plotting, in which seemingly random seeds planted toward the beginning of the episode came to flower at the climax with those little “Eureka” moments; of the great Lalo Schifrin’s pulse-raising theme song; of the appearance in early seasons of Martin Landau as “master of disguise” Rollin Hand, teamed with then-wife Barbara Bain as Cinnamon Carter; and, naturlich, of Graves’s authoritative leadership as Phelps. One of my biggest beefs with the 1996 feature-film version was that they made Phelps a turncoat played by Jon Voight, which was too revisionist for a stodgy guy like me. (I have yet to see the third film, but my response to the first two was concomitant to my respective loathing for Brian De Palma and love for John Woo.)
I don’t claim any expertise regarding Graves’s career, so I’ll restrict myself to several personal points of interest. He was, of course, the younger brother of James Arness of Gunsmoke fame, known to us genre types for the title role of The Thing (1951) and the lead in Them! (1954); they bore a decided physical resemblance, but even more striking to me was the similarity of their voices. And, as mentioned in “The Wilder Bunch, Part II,” Graves also paid his genre dues playing scientists in Red Planet Mars (1952), W. Lee Wilder’s Killers from Space (1954), Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World (1956), and Bert I. Gordon’s Beginning of the End (1957).
Luckily for Graves, these seminal schlock films—often spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000—alternated with supporting roles in legitimate classics. He was the traitorous POW in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), giving him the distinction of working with both Wilder brothers, and Robert Mitchum’s condemned cellmate in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955). In between Paul Newman’s big-screen appearances as Lew Harper in Harper (1966) and The Drowning Pool (1975), Graves played the private eye under his original name, Lew Archer, in a 1974 TV-movie based on Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man. And in 1979 he returned to his SF roots with the forgettable Parts: The Clonus Horror and a guest-star turn on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
Like so many in Hollywood, Graves had a first-degree Matheson connection, starring in Dan Curtis’s Scream of the Wolf (1974), which unfortunately was one of the lesser Matheson/Curtis collaborations. (There’s a section devoted to that telefilm in Richard Matheson on Screen.) At the opposite end of the spectrum, he also worked with Curtis on his acclaimed 1980s miniseries based on Herman Wouk’s novels The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, and he was the only original cast member to return as a regular when Mission: Impossible was revived in 1988.