I was sad to hear that actor Peter Graves died yesterday at the age of 83. And a little embarrassed that to mark his death I had just written a post about feminine hygiene products! Gulp. What would Jim Phelps think?
I admit my first thought when I heard Graves had died was not his iconic role in “Mission: Impossible” (although I LOVED that show) or his wonderfully deadpan performance in “Airplane!” (“Have you ever seen a grown man naked?”). No, my first thought was of my favorite sci-fi flick as a kid, the outrageously absurd “Beginning of the End” in which giant grasshoppers destroy my home town of Chicago. It is so deliciously bad it is a must-see. Befitting the typical Cold War fear-mongering scenarios of the time, Peter Graves plays Dr. Ed Wainright, a scientist at the Illinois State Experimental Farm, who accidentally exposes some common grasshoppers to atomic radiation causing them to grow to gigantic proportions and go on a rampage in downtown Chicago. The effects are so bad that at one point you can see grasshoppers walking off a postcard of the Wrigley Building (which they are supposed to be devouring). Behold the trailer to this glorious classic:
Check out Graves’ rapid-fire delivery of “We may be witnessing the beginning of an era that will mean the complete annihilation of man.” You try saying that ten times! Or his retort, “You can't drop an atom bomb on Chicago!”
Peter Graves made many science fiction movies in the 1950s. usually playing the straight-man PhD trying to explain the weird phenomena. Although his big brother was James Arness, who became a big star in “Gunsmoke,” this did not open many doors for the young actor when he followed his brother to Hollywood from Minnesota. “Jim met me at the train station and said ‘Go back.’ I wouldn’t so he checked me into the Hollywood YMCA, which is a far cry from the Hotel Bel-Air, let me tell you. Jim gave me a copy of the Hollywood Reporter and said ‘Go.’” Graves’ first big break was when he got cast in Billy Wilder’s “Stalag 17,”
Graves appeared in three forgettable TV series in the early 1960s before he was pegged to replace Steven Hill in the brilliant “Mission: Impossible.” It’s easy to forget these days that Graves was not part of the cast during its first year. CBS was a little worried about the switch but Peter was not. “It’s a good spot for me,” he said just before the second season began in 1967. “After shooting four episodes, I knew I fit in artistically with the others. I recently finished a movie with Doris Day, which will be out in the fall. This TV role makes me more of a debonair type. You should see the apartment they’ve set up for Jim Phelps. It’s really posh.” Graves’ presence in the cast catapulted the show in the ratings from 40th to the Top Ten. “That,” insisted Graves, who did not want to grab the credit, “was because we switched to a better time slot.”
“Mission: Impossible,” in my opinion, was the best ensemble acting on television in the 1960s and early 70s. It was also ground-breaking in that the Impossible Mission Force included a woman (Barbara Bain) and African-American (Greg Morris) without making any big deal about it. I was hopelessly in love with Barbara Bain’s Cinammon Carter. I think my favorite episode was when Cinammon was captured by the enemy. Bain was great, and of course, was eventually rescued by Peter Graves. I’m horrified to think that many people today probably think of Tom Cruise, not Peter Graves, when they hear “Mission: Impossible.” I’m also horrified that in the Tom Cruise abomination, they turned Phelps into a traitor who had murdered three of the IMF staff. No way in hell would Jim Phelps turn to the dark side. Peter Graves was also disgusted by the treatment of his character and chose not to reprise the role in the films (Jon Voight played Phelps).
Back in the 1960s, the 6-foot 3-inch Peter Graves was like a real-life Don Draper, always making the best-dressed lists. “I, personally, like good clothes. I appreciate a fine tailored suit and I’m impressed with the expansion of color in men’s wardrobes,” Graves told the American Institute of Menswear in 1968. “While I’m hampered a bit as Jim Phelps in that I must wear black and shades of gray, the character does call for a well dressed individual. Phelps is an urbane man, not rich-rich, but with money and taste who’s learned how to dress.” Graves enjoyed wearing the new style of turtlenecks that had just become popular in 1968. “I had several turtles before they were in. People seemed to think they were funny. Now everyone in wearing them practically every place. I think that’s real fine, but I don’t agree they should go to a formal affair. Turtlenecks with dinner jackets seem ridiculous to me.”
Graves stayed married to his childhood sweetheart for over 60 years. He had three daughters and six grandchildren. I'm so glad he got to celebrate getting his star on Hollywood Boulevard just a few short months ago. Sadly, he collapsed yesterday after enjoying a pre-birthday brunch with his family. He would have turned 84 this Friday. Our good friend Barbara Rush played Graves’ wife on the TV show “Seventh Heaven” for several seasons a few years ago. They were the most gorgeous and hip grandparents you can imagine. Barbara was devastated to hear about Peter’s passing yesterday and said he was a joy to work with. “One of my most successful marriages!”
Rest in peace, Peter Graves. And don’t worry, the Secretary will not disavow any knowledge of your actions.