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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March 17, 2010 - 10:24am
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