Sunday, March 14, 2010

RIP, Peter Graves

I'm sad to report tonight that actor Peter Graves has died at his California home, four days before his 84th birthday (MSNBC obit here).

Graves, the younger brother of GUNSMOKE star James Arness (the family name is Aurness), was a solid, dependable leading man in features and television who made his splash in Hollywood as the traitorous POW Price in Billy Wilder's wonderful STALAG 17. Throughout the 1950s, he worked his ass off in major films (NIGHT OF THE HUNTER), schlocky sci-fi (Bert I. Gordon's BEGINNING OF THE END, Roger Corman's IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, even Billy's brother W. Lee Wilder's KILLERS FROM SPACE), and in TV guest shots.

He starred in six television series--the westerns FURY and WHIPLASH; COURT MARTIAL; the classic MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and its 1980s comeback; and the documentary series BIOGRAPHY on A&E, which spawned a Phil Hartman parody on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE--as well as the epic miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR and WAR AND REMEMBRANCE. He also was surprisingly funny as the oblivious Captain Oveur in 1980's AIRPLANE!

What's interesting about Graves' AIRPLANE! turn is that he was reportedly bemused why Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, and Jim Abrahams would want to cast him, an actor who had always acted in serious roles, in a comedy. Even while shooting AIRPLANE!, Graves was confused as to what the gag was, but like a professional, he pressed on. It wasn't until co-star Lloyd Bridges told him, "We're the joke, Peter," that he began to catch on, that it was the juxtaposition of familiar dramatic actors playing the material straight was what was funny.

Of course, it was that quality that made MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE the international sensation it became. Although Graves didn't join the '60s spy series until its second season, replacing Steven Hill (later the D.A. on LAW & ORDER) as the star, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE flourished under his steady presence. Because the plots and situations were frequently so outlandish, they needed to be grounded in some level of reality to make them plausible. While Graves was a limited actor, he was always a believable one, and he had a way of performing the most absurd material in such a way that the audience totally bought it. You can read some of my posts on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and Graves here.

It should also be noted that Graves dabbled in directing, helming one MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE segment and a 1966 episode of his brother's GUNSMOKE.

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