Peter Graves

Active - 1942 - 2009  |   Born - Mar 18, 1926 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States  |   Died - Mar 14, 2010   |   Genres - Spy Film

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Biography by Hal Erickson

The younger brother of Gunsmoke star James Arness, American actor Peter Graves worked as a musician and radio actor before entering films with 1950's Rogue River. At first, it appeared that Graves would be the star of the family, since he was cast in leads while brother Jim languished in secondary roles. Then came Stalag 17 (1953), in which Graves was first-rate as a supposedly all-American POW who turned out to be a vicious Nazi spy. Trouble was, Graves played the part too well, and couldn't shake the Nazi stereotype in the eyes of most Hollywood producers. Suddenly the actor found himself in such secondary roles as Shelley Winters' doomed husband in Night of the Hunter (1955) (he was in and out of the picture after the first ten minutes), while sibling James Arness was riding high with Gunsmoke. Dissatisfied with his film career, Graves signed on in 1955 for a network kid's series about "a horse and the boy who loved him." Fury wasn't exactly Citizen Kane, but it ran five years and made Graves a wealthy man through rerun residuals--so much so that he claimed to be making more money from Fury than his brother did from Gunsmoke. In 1966, Peter Graves replaced Steven Hill as head honcho of the force on the weekly TV adventure series Mission: Impossible, a stint that lasted until 1973. Though a better than average actor, Graves gained something of a camp reputation for his stiff, straight-arrow film characters and was often cast in films that parodied his TV image. One of the best of these lampoonish appearances was in the Zucker-Abrahams comedy Airplane (1980), as a nutty airline pilot who asks outrageous questions to a young boy on the plane (a part the actor very nearly turned down, until he discovered that Leslie Nielsen was co-starring in the film). Peter Graves effortlessly maintained his reliable, authoritative movie persona into the '90s and 2000s, and hosted the Biography series on A&E, for which he won an Emmy; he also guest-starred on programs including Cold Case, House and American Dad. Graves died of natural causes in March 2010, at age 83.

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  • In high school, he was captain of the track team and a high hurdler; won the state title in high hurdles his junior year.
  • After high school, he joined the U.S. Army, where he played in the band.
  • While his brother, James Arness, slightly altered the family name (Aurness) for his acting moniker, Peter decided to adopt his maternal grandfather's name, Graves.
  • Made his film debut in 1951's Rogue River.
  • Signature role was Jim Phelps on the TV series Mission: Impossible.