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Peter Graves: An appreciation

Peter Graves, one of TV's truly iconic actors who was simply known as "Jim Phelps" to one generation of viewers and as the big screen's Capt. Clarence Oveur to another, died over the weekend.

Here's the fast obit from the AP:

"Peter Graves, star of the television series "Mission Impossible" and the "Airplane" films, has died.

Graves' publicist, Sandy Brokaw, says the actor died Sunday shortly after returning to his Los Angeles home from brunch with his family. He was 83.

Graves was best known for his portrayal of Jim Phelps, leader of a gang of special agents who battled evil conspirators in the long-running television series "Mission: Impossible."

Normally cast as a hero, he turned in an unforgettable performance early in his career as the treacherous Nazi spy in Billy Wilder's 1953 prisoner-of-war drama "Stalag 17."

He also masterfully lampooned his straight-arrow image when he portrayed bumbling airline pilot Clarence Oveur in the 1980 disaster movie spoof "Airplane!""

It's been fairly standard
to reduce Grave's career to those two above-mentioned roles, but he was in so much more - so many roles in so many series - that there was a time when he was one of the most famous, and one of the most ubiquitous, actors in all of television. More than a great actor, he was a great utility player who assumed key supporting roles in shows both major and small. He was luckless Palmer Kirby, dumped by Polly Bergen's character in "Winds of War," the sprawling ABC mini of the late '80s with a cast of hundreds, and also "War & Remembrance." He popped up in various series in later years - notably an intermittent role on 7th Heaven" - and turned up in places where you'd least expect him: "Cold Case," "House" and even (gads) as a voice on "American Dad." Those all might be characterized as "paying the mortgage roles," and so probably was the time he reprised Jim Phelps on the” Mission Impossible" remake.

But for most viewers, he the steady guy on A&E's "Biography," who would introduce hundreds of famous people - many, no doubt, who never achieved quite the level of fame he had had.

It should be added, perhaps, that his later role as the wayward pilot of "Airplane!" ('80) and "A II" ('82) pretty much scrapped any chance he ever had of becoming a late-in-life "serious" actor, who wanted to cap off a long and memorable career with a few Emmy-winning roles, and maybe a Lifetime Achievement nod here or there. He was so brilliant as Capt. Clarence - by far the most memorable of so many memorable characters - that it overshadowed the rest of his career; Graves, in fact, was a more gifted comic actor than dramatic one.

Who knew?

There were many many major roles, in fact, in the early years of television, though he never achieved the tube fame of his brother, James Arness - which is maybe why he pragmatically changed his name. One of the big series was "Fury" - named for an adopted horse full of "fire and fury" (it was kind of a western; more about a boy and his horse).

Of course, the role that defined everything - and for a time, in a series that defined even the possibilities of dramatic television - was Jim Phelps in "Mission: Impossible."

Unless you were there, it's (a mission) impossible to overstate the power and fame and influence of this series, or of Phelps' classic opener - receiving his instructions, and then that magic moment where the tape self-destructs and we cue to the theme music.

"M:I" was the "24" of its day, only bigger. Phelps was such a huge part of its success that the man who played him would spend the rest of his career trying to find a new or different groove. "Airplane!" - of all things - gave him exactly that.

 On to the clips!

  I've assembled a mere three here, and the last one doesn't even show the face of Graves; but the voice, and role, are unmistakeable. This is the opener to "M:I."

  First up, Graves in "Stalag 17," the Billy Wilder classic.

  The middle clip needs no introduction.







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