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March 18, 2010

Actor Peter Graves Passes at 83

Starring role in Mission: Impossible and hosting of Biography were among the highlights of a career spanning more than 50 years.

Actor Peter Graves, who earned legions of fans as the star of the popular TV espionage drama Mission: Impossible, and for his comedic turns in the Airplane! movies, died March 14, 2010, at his home in Pacific Palisades, California. He was 83.

According to news reports, the cause of death was an apparent heart attack.

During a career that spanned more than five decades, Graves was perhaps best known for the role of Jim Phelps, the cool-headed leader of a group of agents on Mission: Impossible. But he by the time that series debuted in 1967, he was already known to audiences from such films as the 1953 World War II drama Stalag 17 and the television drama Fury, which aired from 1955-1960.

Graves embarked on an acting career after his brother, James Arness, known for his performance as Marshall Matt Dillon on the long-running television series Gunsmoke.

He was born Peter Aurness on March 18, 1926, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He adopted the name Graves, his grandfather’s last name, to avoid confusion with his older brother, who had dropped the U from the family name when he became an actor.

He was a champion hurdler in high school, as well as a clarinet player in dance bands and a radio announcer.

After two years in the Air Force, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota as a drama major and worked in summer stock before following his brother to Hollywood.

Graves’ other films included The Long Gray Line, The Night of the Hunter and The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell.

He also did a great deal of television work in the medium’s so-called Golden Age, and eventually found an enduring niche with Mission: Impossible. Each episode began with Graves listening to a tape outlining the details of his latest mission, after which the tape would self-destruct.

The series ran on CBS from 1967 to 1973 and was revived on ABC from 1988 to 1990 with Graves back as the only original cast member.

For his work on the show, Graves received a Primetime Emmy nomination in 1969 for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series.

In his later years, Graves remained a familiar TV face via numerous commercials, as well as hosting the PBS series Discover: The World of Science and A&E’s Biography. In 1997, for the Biography episode titled Judy Garland: Beyond the Rainbow, he won an Emmy for Outstanding Informational Series.

Although known best for earnest drama, his comedic work in Airplane! and its sequel marked a welcome, and unexpected, departure that earned plaudits for his performance as Capt. Clarence Oveur, whose surname spurred endless jokes based on confusion with “over,” a term used constantly in aviation radio communication.

He continued to work well into his seventies, and had a recurring role on the TV drama Seventh Heaven, and did numerous voice-overs for animated series and other productions.

He is survived by his wife over 50 years, three daughters and six grandchildren.

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