Peter Graves, the soberly handsome star of TV's iconic Mission: Impossible (1967-1973), died of a heart attack yesterday (March 14th). He was just a few days short of his 84th birthday. Born Peter Aurness in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Graves was the younger brother of Gunsmoke star James Arness, and followed his brother to Hollywood after studying drama on the G.I. Bill — he served in the Air Force from 1944 to 1945.
Since I'm far from the only person fondly eulogizing Graves, I'm going to skip over Mission: Impossible and Airplane! (1980), which hauled his flagging later career out of the doldrums. Instead, let me sing the praises of his work on the exploitation fringes, which — to his eternal credit — he approached with the same manful gravity he brought to his more mainstream parts.
Like Red Planet Mars (1952), a Cold War thriller in which he plays a scientist who uncovers a dastardly Soviet plot to foment worldwide chaos with fake transmissions from an advanced Martians race. Thank goodness the real Martians turn out to be a pious lot who have no truck with godless communists! A lesser actor might have phoned it in, but not Graves, who — after ten years in the business — was about to get his first break, a small but striking part in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953).
A pettier performer might have been too pissed off to bother trying when, a year later, he was busted back to Killers from Space (1954), a micro-budget UFO/commie scare picture directed by Billy’s less talented brother, W. Lee Wilder. But no: Graves squared up his jaw and played it straight. I suspect, though, that he’d have gotten a kick out of Don't Ask Don't Tell (2002), which added new footage and redubbed dialogue to Killers from Space, turning it into a comedy about aliens trying to take over the world by turning everyone gay, starting with — yes — the stalwart military scientist played by Graves. After all, he was game to twit his own rock-ribbed persona by playing Airplane! and Airplane II’s pervy Captain Oveur ("Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?" "Have you ever been in a Turkish prison?").
After nabbing another minor but good part in Charles Laughton's extraordinary The Night of the Hunter (1955), we find Peter Graves, science guy, helping to defeat a bad Martian that looked kind of like a mutant carrot (one of veteran effects artist Paul Blaisdell's most fondly remembered creations) in Roger Corman's It Conquered the World (1956); and carelessly creating giant, irradiated grasshoppers in Bert I. Gordon’s The Beginning of the End (1957), a blatant ripoff of 1954's Them!, which just happened to have starred his big brother. And let's not forget his turn as a naïve, big-city architect among the low-life Cajuns in the swamp melodrama Bayou (1957); with a new, more lurid title, it was re-released as the exploitation hit Poor White Trash.
After Mission: Impossible ended, Graves made numerous TV-movies, including Scream of the Wolf, a Richard Matheson-penned werewolf story with a nifty twist, and John Llewellyn Moxey's desolate "end of the world as we know it" sci-fi picture Where Have All the People Gone; both first aired in (1974).
And finally, Graves was unforgettable as a rich bastard in the still-underrated Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979). Yes, it suffered the constraints of a lower-than-low budget, but its cynical story was a killer — the fact that its writer won a lawsuit claiming that 2005's big budget The Island was pure plagiary tells you something.
So thank you, Peter Graves, for some wonderful movie memories!