Few actors were able to convey a sense of gravitas like the tall, dignified Peter Graves. Brother of actor James Arness, Graves was readily remembered as one of the hosts on "Biography" (A&E, 1987-2006), where he solemnly intoned about the lives of public figures for over a decade. Prior to "Biography," Graves was a film and television star whose heyday came in the late-1960s with the hip Cold War spy drama, "Mission: Impossible" (CBS, 1966-1973). Before stardom, the actor struggled to make a name for himself by starring in a series of schlock horror films, some of which were lampooned on the cult series, "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (KTMA-Comedy Central-Sci Fi Channel, 1988-1999). Regardless of such inauspicious beginnings, Graves was unafraid to poke fun of his persona, which he did to hilarious effect as the captain of a doomed passenger jet in "Airplane" (1980) and "Airplane II: The Sequel" (1982). Though not known for any award-worthy performances, Graves became engrained in pop culture - both as an understated comedic actor as well as a gifted dramatic performer.
Born March 26, 1925 in Minneapolis, MN, Graves was raised by his businessman father, Rolf, and journalist mother, Ruth. As a lad, he excelled in running track and playing the clarinet while attending Southwest High School, for whom he won the state high hurdles junior year. After graduation, Graves enlisted in the U.S. Air Force for two years, then studied drama at the University of Minnesota on the G.I. Bill before heading out to Hollywood to make his mark as an actor. His early years in the movie business were studded with fairly infamous low-budget stinkers, making him a minor trash-movie icon. He appeared in the communist-baiting "Red Planet Mars" (1952), followed by "Killers from Space" (1954), directed by Billy Wilder's younger brother W. Lee, which featured googly-eyed aliens in hooded sweatshirts and oven mitts. Graves had a pivotal role in the Roger Corman quickie "It Conquered The World" (1956), featuring a bizarre zucchini-shaped monster threatening the Earth, as well as a turn in the grasshopper-turned-mutated monster flick, "The Beginning Of The End" (1957). Both films later had the dubious distinction of being featured on "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Also in 1957, Graves was also seen as a well-meaning Yankee opposite an out-of-control Timothy Carey in "Poor White Trash."
At the same time that Graves was appearing in such sci-fi hokum, he was also tackling roles with more dramatic heft, including various appearances on "Fireside Theater" (CBS, 1949-1955) and the wholesome children's series "Fury" (NBC, 1955-1960), on which he played a rancher and the adoptive father of a young boy (Bobby Diamond) who rescues and befriends a wild horse. Upping his profile, Graves made notable appearances throughout the 1950s, playing the German mole Price in "Stalag 17" (1953) and Capt. Elliot in Otto Preminger's somewhat heavy-handed courtroom drama, "The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell" (1955). One of his most interesting roles, though, was playing the flawed, weak-willed father Ben Harper in Charles Laughton's "Night of the Hunter" (1955). The film was a huge flop upon its release, resulting in Laughton never being allowed to direct another one. But its formal, lyrical tone and fable-like storytelling have made it a must-see in film studies ever since. In the film, Graves' character Harper was hauled off by the sheriff early in the movie, ruining his kids' innocence and leaving them $10,000 and a terrible secret to keep. Though his screen time was brief, Graves was searing and intense as the doomed Harper.
Graves started the 1960s with a performances as Christopher Cobb in the Australian television series, "Whiplash" (ATV, 1960-61). This Aussie take on the Western depicted Cobb using a bullwhip rather than a pistol and taking on all comers in his efforts to establish the first stagecoach line in the country. But it was "Mission: Impossible" that gave Graves his breakthrough role. Wildly popular, "M:I" became ensconced in the pop-culture fabric of the decade, from Lalo Schifrin's theme music to the phrase "Your mission, should you choose to accept it " to the tape recorder whose reels would go up in a puff of smoke "in five seconds." In the Cold War-era spy series, Graves played Jim Phelps, the cool-headed leader of the Impossible Mission Force, which pulled together various specialists to carry out top secret missions for the U.S. government. Creator Bruce Geller made it a point to keep the show's characters rather shallow and mysterious, in keeping with the spy-who-came-in-from-the-cold culture of the time. Graves' performance brought him a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in 1971. The show proved memorable enough to warrant a revival series (ABC, 1988-1990), with only Graves returning from the original cast, and four feature films. Fans of the original show criticized the movie franchise for its reliance on Tom Cruise's star power, and rampant explosions and gunplay. Notably, none of the show's original cast members have shown up in cameos in the feature films, though Graves was reportedly asked to play Phelps, which he turned down because the first feature depicted him as a villain.
In 1980, Graves was approached with what he regarded as "the worst piece of junk he had ever seen" - which turned out to be the script for "Airplane." He changed his mind, however, after a meeting with the movie's creators, Jerry and David Zucker, and came onboard as Capt. Oveur, the stolid airline pilot who has to ride herd on all sorts of airborne emergencies in the ridiculous spoof of 1970s disaster movies. The movie's mile-a-minute gags, puns and double entendres proved to be a huge hit, enough to warrant the equally funny "Airplane II: The Sequel." It also showed that the normally stony Graves had some comedic chops and was far from being too proud to poke fun at himself. Meanwhile, aside from a role in the spoof "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" (1998), Graves began to keep away from features. In 1989, Graves began his long stint as host of "Biography," a documentary television series that featured long, in-depth looks at celebrities, politicians and other iconic figures. In Graves' 12 years as host, he delved into numerous lives, including Ronald Reagan, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Groucho Marx, Madonna, Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, Mel "The Velvet Fog" Torme, Mia Farrow and Tom Hanks, to name a few.
As the new millennium came into being, the aging Graves began to slow down his career, putting in occasional television appearances while holding down his "Biography" gig. He did become a regular on the feel-good family drama, "7th Heaven" (CBS, 1997-2007), playing John "The Colonel" Camden, the Marine father of the Reverend Eric Camden (Stephen Collins), whose brood of seven deals with a moral or controversial issue each week. After appearing in the uneven "Men In Black II" (2002), playing the host of a "Biography"-style expose' program, Graves returned to the small screen for guest shots on "House" (Fox, 2004-), "Cold Case" (CBS, 2003- ) and "American Dad" (Fox, 2004- ). Meanwhile, Graves left "Biography" in 2001, and five years later, the show was effectively canceled by A&E, although it lived on exclusively on The Biography Channel with new hosts and voiceover talent.
Though largely retired in his later years, Graves did turn up in a spoof of his "Airplane" role in a web-only video promotion for AirTran Airways' in-flight Internet service. He also served as the spokesperson for mortgage lender, American Advisors Group, in the summer of 2009, after which he earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame later that October. But on March 14, 2010, Graves collapsed in the driveway of his Pacific Palisades home after having Sunday brunch with his family to celebrate his upcoming birthday. One of his daughters found him outside unresponsive and performed emergency CPR to no avail. Initial reports indicated that Graves was in good health and may have died of an apparent heart attack. He was 83.