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This Post, Should You Choose to Read It: Remembering Peter Graves

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Veteran actor Peter Graves passed away last weekend. Even though the poor guy went to his grave with people asking him "Do you like gladiator movies?" we'd like everyone to remember that he had a very long career prior to (and after) Airplane! Here are a few stories you might not have heard about Peter Graves.

He Wasn't the First Mission:Impossible Team Leader

Peter Graves starred as James Phelps on TV's Mission: Impossible from 1967 to 1973. M:I fans remember Graves as the character who opened each episode -- he was the one who received the tape recording (which self-destructed) and dossier that outlined each week's story to the viewers. However, he wasn't the original M:I team leader. During the series' first season, that role was played by actor Steven Hill as Daniel Briggs. Hill had been the personal choice of series creator Bruce Geller, who signed him to a contract -- despite his demands. As a strict Orthodox Jew, Hill left the set regularly on Fridays before sunset whether a scene was finished or not. His costumes and wardrobe -- down to his shoes and hosiery -- had to be specially ordered from New York in order to assure that they were kosher.

Desilu Productions was bleeding money in overtime costs in order to accommodate Hill's schedule, and CBS wanted to replace him with Peter Graves, their first choice for the role. Graves, they felt, was more of a leading man than Hill, had a solid background in B-movies, a serious, no-nonsense demeanor and had no troublesome on-set tantrums on his permanent record. But Lucille Ball, then the head of Desilu Productions, sided with Geller and Hill retained the role. When Ball sold Desilu to Gulf + Western in 1967, CBS did not renew Hill's contract and Peter Graves became the man who got to choose whether or not to accept the mission.

He Worked with Giant Grasshoppers (and kept a straight face)

The 1950s were a hotbed of Creatures Gone Wild films, from Tarantula to the giant ants in Them to The Blob. One memorable entry in this genre was 1957's Beginning of the End, in which enormous grasshoppers threaten to destroy Chicago. Graves' portrayal of scientist Dr. Ed Wainwright helped to make this film the biggest money-maker in director Bert I. Gordon's portfolio. Graves was no stranger to sci-fi at the time; roles in Killers from Space and It Conquered the World helped pay the bills for his wife and three daughters. Like the true professional he was, Graves never camped it up no matter how cheesy the film; he always played it straight and managed to inject an element of believability into his character.

He Graduated from the University of Minnesota

"¦but the screenplay based on his years at U of M remains unproduced:

Close, but No Award

Even though his Mission: Impossible co-star Barbara Bain won three Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Cinnamon Carter, Peter Graves was only nominated for that award just once during his M:I years -- and he lost to Carl Betz for his work on Judd for the Defense. Graves won his sole Emmy in 1997 as host of the A&E Channel's documentary Judy Garland: Beyond the Rainbow.

His Real Last Name Was "Aurness"

The family's surname is Aurness; when Pete's big brother, Jim, launched his acting career he dropped the "u" from the spelling. By the time Peter got the acting bug, James already had several movie roles under his belt. In order to avoid confusion, Pete adopted his maternal grandfather's middle name, Graves, as his new last name. Probably a good thing, because James Arness went on to have a 20 year run as Marshall Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke.

He Didn't want to be Oveur

airplane-oveurWhen Graves first read the Airplane! script, he told his agent that it was "the worst piece of junk" he'd ever seen. Moreover, he feared that the proposed role of Captain Oveur would not only ruin his career, but the implied pedophiliac tendencies of his character could also land him in jail. A face-to-face meeting with David and Jerry Zucker changed his mind. They explained that the straight-laced Peter Graves of Mission: Impossible playing such a comedic role would be an immediate hit with the audience (it also helped that they'd already recruited tough-as-nails Robert Stack of The Untouchables fame for a similarly uncharacteristic part in their film). Of course, the producers were right: the role actually expanded Graves' career into unforeseen comedic areas (much like the film did for Leslie Nielsen). Behold the power of spoofing oneself!

Thanks to Airplane! He Could Discuss "Tangerine Lip Gloss" with a Straight Face

Had Graves not appeared as deadpan pilot Clarence Oveur, he probably would've never been tapped for the big-bucks-royalties-for-an-hour-of-work world of TV commercials. Remember the gravitas he added a real customer's case for Geico insurance?

When All is Said and Done, He was a Good Solid Midwestern Guy with a Strong Family Ethic

When Graves left Minnesota for Hollywood in 1949, his girlfriend Joan Endress followed him. Neither one thought it appropriate to live together before marriage, so Joan got an apartment and a job working in a doctor's office, and Peter got a room in a boarding house across the street. They were sort of "pre-engaged," dating only each other but deciding not to get married until Peter got an actual contract as a working actor. When he landed a role in Rogue River in 1950, he officially proposed and the pair were wed with the blessing of the bride's parents. Sixty years later, Peter and Joan were returning from Sunday brunch with their three adult daughters when he collapsed just outside his house with what would later be determined to be a fatal heart attack.

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
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Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
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If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
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If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
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While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
iStock

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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