Peter Graves dies at 83; star of TV’s ‘Mission: Impossible’

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Peter Graves, the rugged actor who starred in the hit TV series “Mission: Impossible” and whose career took a comic turn in the disaster spoof “Airplane!” has died. He was 83.

Graves was found dead Sunday afternoon in front of his Pacific Palisades home from apparent natural causes, said Officer Karen Rayner of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Peter Graves obituary: The obituary of actor Peter Graves in the March 15 LATExtra section said the television series “Mission: Impossible,” in which he played intelligence agent James Phelps, ran from 1967 to 1973 on CBS and from 1988 to 1990 on ABC. The show debuted in 1966; Graves joined the cast in 1967. —

Graves had just returned from brunch with his family to celebrate his upcoming 84th birthday. He collapsed on the driveway before he could reach his house, said Sandy Brokaw, his publicist. One of Graves’ daughters administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation but was unable to revive him, Brokaw said.

Graves starred in more than 70 television series and feature films, typically playing the straight-laced hero. One of his first major roles was in the 1953 classic, “Stalag 17,” in which he played an undercover Nazi spy placed among American POWs in a German camp.


His most memorable role was in “Mission: Impossible,” the 1960s CBS series in which he played intelligence agent James Phelps, leader of the elite Impossible Missions Force. The show ran from 1967 to 1973 on CBS and 1988 to 1990 on ABC.

Every week, Graves could be seen listening to a tape of instructions for carrying out his team’s secret missions. He won a Golden Globe in 1971 for his role.

“Mission: Impossible,” along with other Western, military and action parts in the 1970s, branded Graves as an actor who could deliver solid, straight-shooting roles. But that changed in 1980, when he became the star of the comedy “Airplane!,” in which he played Capt. Clarence Oveur, the bumbling pilot whose one-liners included, “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”

Graves initially turned down the role. “I read it and thought, ‘Gee, this is dangerous,’ ” Graves told The Times in late 2009. “It was in terrible taste.”

But the film’s producer, Howard Koch, urged him to meet with the young filmmakers, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, who told him that they wanted somebody of stature and dignity to play the role “absolutely straight,” Graves recalled.

“They say you are supposed to stretch as an actor, so let’s go stretch it,” he said.

He joined other actors known for serious roles, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen, in the film.


Graves was born Peter Aurness in 1926 in Minneapolis, the son of a journalist and a businessman. Graves’ older brother, James Arness, would later play Marshal Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke.” Graves adopted his grandfather’s last name to avoid confusion with his brother.

He studied drama at the University of Minnesota until arriving in Hollywood 60 years ago. He married his college sweetheart, Joan Endress, that same year.

One year later, he landed his first movie role in 1951’s “Rogue River.” He later starred in the TV show “Fury,” playing a horse rancher who befriends an orphan. The contemporary Western series became a hit and ran on NBC between 1955 and 1960.

“I wanted Peter Graves to be my dad,” Jerry Zucker, who directed “Airplane!” told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1997.

During the 1990s, Graves hosted the documentary series “Biography” on A&E.

In an interview with The Times in December, Graves said he wasn’t ready to retire. “There has got to be some good parts around for guys my age,” he said.

Recent roles included a guest part on “House” and 11 episodes on “7th Heaven.”

He recently read for a part on a TV series as a grandfather, Brokaw said.

In addition to his wife, Graves is survived by three daughters and six grandchildren.


Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.