‘Good Morning, Mr. Phelps’

Peter Graves
March 18, 1926-March 14, 2010

To one generation, actor Peter Graves was known variously as the scientist receiving messages from Mars beseeching Americans to return to worshipping God in the 1952 sci-fi film, Red Planet Mars; as the wise, benevolent rancher Jim Newton, father to an adopted orphan son, Joey, played by Bobby Diamond, on the popular TV series Fury (“The story of a horse…and the boy who loves him,” as the announcer proclaimed over the opening credits) from 1955 to 1960 (some may also recall Graves starring in the short-lived but fascinating Australia-set TV western, Whiplash, in 1959-60, which included four episodes written by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbery); and most indelibly, as Jim Phelps, the solid, unflappable—and wryly humorous—leader (“impervious genius” was Grave’s description of Phelps) of the Impossible Mission Force that worked to deter evil-doers at home and especially abroad who were bent on doing harm to the West, as portrayed each week on Mission: Impossible, from 1967 to 1973.

A snippet of an episode of Whiplash, a Western set in Australia starring Peter Graves, 1959-1960. Four episodes were written by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

Fury, the first episode, broadcast October 15, 1955, starring Peter Graves as Jim Newton, Bobby Diamond as Joey, William Fawcett as Pete and Ann Robinson as Joey’s schoolteacher, Helen Watkins. In all, 116 episodes of Fury were filmed.

Although he appeared in more than 70 TV shows, TV films and theatrical movies—including memorable roles in acclaimed films such as 1955’s Charles Laughton-directed crime classic starring Robert Mitchum, Night Of the Hunter (which in 1992 was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and preserved in its National Film Registry) and Billy Wilder’s stirring 1953 tale of American airmen imprisoned in a German POW camp, Stalag 17—still another generation remembers him solely for his brilliant comedic turn going against his own screen image as Captain Clarence Oveur in the 1980 satirical comedy Airplane!, directed by David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams. It was Captain Oveur who asked a 12-year-old boy visitor to the cockpit, “You ever seen a grown man naked?”; it was Captain Oveur and his copilot, Roger Murdock (played with his usual cool—and in part in his Los Angeles Lakers’ uniform—by Karem Abdul-Jabbar), coming down with food poisoning that got the movie rolling (after Clarence had been given clearance to take off, mind you) when their disabled state led to the activation of the autopilot (a blow-up doll named Otto) and the recruitment of traumatized ex-fighter pilot Ted Striker to steer the plane to safety. Imagine what it must have been like to write the previous two sentences if you want to know how absurdly hilarious this movie is, and why Mr. Graves’s place in film history was secured with his portrayal of Captain Oveur.

The trailer for Airplane! Of the script, Peter Graves said: ‘When I read it, I knew it was the craziest thing I had ever read, surely.’

Mission: Impossible has had a couple of extra lives since the original series ended, with Graves reprising the role of Jim Phelps in a new TV version aired from 1988 to 1990. He was the only member of the original cast to return to the show (which was filmed in Australia), although other cast members made guest appearances. In 1996 Mission: Impossible became a film franchise starring Tom Cruise, but was heavy on explosions and gunplay, rather than the subtle, inventive, often psychological warfare of the original. Its interpretation of Phelps (played by true-life right wing lunatic Jon Voight) as a traitor who murders fellow IMF agents angered and disappointed Graves.

On March 14, on returning from having brunch with his wife and children, Graves collapsed in front of his house, dead of a heart attack four days prior to his 84th birthday. Graves is survived by his wife, Joan Endress, whom he married in 1950; three daughters (Claudia King, Kelly Jean and Amanda Lee); and six grandchildren. During his career Graves won an Emmy Award (1971) for his role in Mission: Impossible and a Primetime Emmy for outstanding informational series in 1997 as host of Biography on the A&E Network. More recently, on October 30, 2009, Graves was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Born Peter Aurness on March 18, 1926 in Minneapolis, MN, of Norwegian and German ancestry, he spent two years in the Air Force after graduating from high school in 1944; after the service he attended the University of Minnesota. His first movie role was in the 1942 short subject, Winning Your Wings. His older brother—three years his senior—James Arness, the legendary star of TV’s epochal western, Gunsmoke, also survives him. —David McGee


Peter Graves was interviewed by Movieline.com’s Seth Abramovitch on October 29, 2009. The following is an excerpt from that interview, in which Graves discusses his early movie career, and his infamous role in Airplane. The complete interview can be accessed at: http://www.movieline.com/2009/10/peter-graves-a-return-to-mission-impossible-iv-would-be-good.php?page=all

I’d like, if we might, to start by reaching backwards in your career. The Night of the Hunter is considered to be one of the very best American films of the 1950s, if not all time. What are your memories of that shoot

Peter Graves: It was way ahead of its time. I don’t think the post-War world was quite ready for that yet. My memories of it are wonderful. We made that in ‘54. I do believe that was the only film Charles Laughton ever directed, but not because he didn’t want to or wasn’t splendid at it. He was just getting older by that time, and I don’t think probably had the energy to do a lot of directing.

gravesHe was a great example of the way some actors could become marvelous directors. He had a trick that I hadn’t seen before, of rolling the camera with a fresh, 1000-foot roll on it. When you finished the scene, he’d already notified the camera not to cut, and while it was still rolling, he would say to the actors, ”Try so-and-so. Make this a little more pronounced, or less. Turn away for that line. Soften it a bit.” He’d talk it through. And then, very quietly, he’d say, “All right, let’s do it again — action.” And he might do it three or four times, or for however long it would take to fill up that first reel. Nine minutes or ten. It was a wonderful way to work.

Of course, working with [Robert] Mitchum — that was my first time working with him. And he was marvelous, very professional. A bright, bright guy. And a pretty independent fella!

Prior to that, you had also worked with Billy Wilder on Stalag 17.

Graves: I made that in ‘52. That’s getting pretty far away, now. It was terrific. It was a great time working for Billy Wilder. He wrote it.

But it was based on a play, right?

Graves: Yeah. It was written by these two guys who had been in one of the Stalags. Paramount hired one of those writers to work on the screenplay and be a part of the barracks. But Billy didn’t like him or think he could screenwrite worth a damn. So he never did anything involving writing.

Since it had been a play, and took place primarily in the barracks, it lent itself to be photographed from the beginning to the end, which we did. We started with about 20 pages. When we finished those, Billy would come striding onto the set with his new pages. And he’d say, “C’mon — sit around the table, let’s read this through and see if it’s going to work for us.” And we did the rest of the picture that way, which was a wonderful way to work. Again, creative stuff. He was a pressure writer. He had to be under pressure.

There are only a couple of us left. But it’s a memory that will endure, and a picture surely that has endured.

That’s for sure. You also starred in a series of a sci-fi films in the ’50s, including one directed by Billy Wilder’s brother, I believe.

Graves: Geez, that’s right, of course! Of course! W. Lee Wilder, was it?

That’s right.

Graves: Which one was that? I made three or four of those.


Killers From Space.

Graves: Killers From Space! I did three or four of them. That was a wonderful way to learn your craft. We didn’t waste any time — we made most of those in ten days.


Graves: Yeah. I did one for Roger Corman. He’s still with us. He was brilliant— he knew story and character very well. I think he made as good sci-fi pictures as anyone, no matter what their budget. The only thing that we were missing in those days were the special effects, of course. But his screenplays were certainly as good as anything like Jurassic Park, which cost what, $100 million?

They’d later go on to have a second life on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Are you familiar with that show

Graves: Yeah, right. I’ve caught some of those.

You have…

Graves: Yeah. With the idiots sitting in the front row and commenting on what they see on the screen.

You weren’t too pleased with those?

Graves: No, I wasn’t too pleased with those.

OK. But that brings us to Airplane!, and the fact that you were willing to spoof your own image.

Graves: Mm-hm.

I had read that when you first read the script, you called it “the worst piece of junk you had ever seen.” Is that true?

Graves: [Laughs] I don’t know if I really said that. When I read it, I knew it was the craziest thing I had ever read, surely.

‘I was concerned about playing this pilot who would say things like, 'You ever see a grown man naked?’ to a 12-year-old boy."

Don’t call me Shirley.

Graves: [Laughs] Right, right. Of course. But more than that, I was concerned about playing this pilot who would say things like, “You ever see a grown man naked?” to a 12-year-old boy.

That was a concern to you?

Graves: My career had been built really on the solid, straightforward, honest, hardworking guy. I played the iron-bound father in Fury and the impervious genius in Mission: Impossible. My whole career had been pretty good guys, and I saw danger in Cpt. Oveur. That I could have been spoofing myself, and maybe lose a twenty year buildup that I had made by that time. So I did call my agent and said, “I don’t think I can do this.” And he said, “OK, I’ll tell them.” And about ten minutes later, I got a call from Howard Koch, who was the executive producer overseeing the three young guys who were making this thing. And he said, “Why don’t you come in and talk to the guys, and let them explain to you what they’re looking for.”

And I did so, and I really went in with the thing in mind that they should have Harvey Korman play this pilot. And they smiled at each other, and said, “No—you don’t get what we’re talking about yet.” They explained to me that they wanted all these characters to play it as real as anything we’d ever played on the screen, and straight. Never thinking that we were making a joke or saying a funny line. And that appealed to me. I thought man, I’m onto something, crossed my fingers and said, “Sure. I’ll do it.” And it’s become a happy experience.

Had Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen and Lloyd Bridges joined that cast at that point? Did that influence your decision at all?

Graves: I don’t know that they had. I can’t remember discussing that. They might have. We were all cast around the same time. But we never worked together. I worked with Leslie once or twice in the film, but I never worked with Bob or Lloyd. When you don’t have that kind of continuity, or share the some stories or feelings, it’s difficult. We were off in our own solitary confinement—me with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Did it change your career significantly?

Graves: When it became a success, I got scripts from all over the place, all playing the same character. People without taste, utterly, and I turned them all down. I went from that directly into Winds of War — another straight character—so no, it didn’t have a big effect, except to widen an audience for me. People said, “Hey—Graves can do more than one thing.” Because believe me—there is truth in Hollywood typecasting. Oh man.

gravesLet’s talk about that “impervious genius” you played on Mission: Impossible — Jim Phelps. Recently, the director J.J. Abrams, who did Mission: Impossible III and the new Star Trek film, had said that he heard you’re in great shape, and he wants to “seriousize” you. In other words, bring you back to bridge the gap in the fourth installment, the way he did with Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek. What would be your response if he approached you with that?

Graves: It would be good. It would be good. When the first film was made with Tom [Cruise], I certainly objected to Jon Voight playing a character named Phelps who turns out to be the rat and the spy and the killer who destroys his whole team of people—and he himself is killed in that film. I didn’t like that much. And certainly the approach to Mission: Impossible, which had been a sort of intellectual game, rather than shoot ‘em up, car crash, plane crash, bang bang stuff.

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