Peter Graves, the cool spymaster of television’s “Mission: Impossible” and the dignified host of the “Biography” series, who successfully spoofed his own gravitas in the “Airplane!” movie farces, died on Sunday. He was 83.
He died of a heart attack at his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif., said Fred Barman, his business manager.
It was a testament to Mr. Graves’s earnest, unhammy ability to make fun of himself that after decades of playing square he-men and straitlaced authority figures, he was perhaps best known to younger audiences for a deadpan line in “Airplane!” (“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”) and one from a memorable Geico car insurance commercial (“I was one lucky woman”).
Born Peter Aurness in Minneapolis, the blond, 6-foot-2 Mr. Graves served in the Army Air Forces in 1944 and ’45, studied drama at the University of Minnesota under the G.I. Bill of Rights and played the clarinet in local bands before following his older brother, James Arness, to Hollywood.
His first credited film appearance was in “Rogue River” (1950), with Rory Calhoun. Mr. Graves’s getting a Hollywood contract for the picture persuaded his fiancée’s family to let her marry him. He changed his name for that movie to Graves, his maternal grandfather’s name, to avoid confusion with his older brother.
He soon found himself in classics like Billy Wilder’s “Stalag 17” (1953), where he played a security officer with a secret; Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter” (1955); Otto Preminger’s “Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell” (1955); and John Ford’s “Long Gray Line” (1955).
Mr. Graves became known for taking all his roles seriously, injecting a certain believability into even the campiest plot. He appeared in westerns like “The Yellow Tomahawk” (1954) and “Wichita” (1955); a Civil War adventure, “The Raid” (1954); and gangster movies (“Black Tuesday,” 1954, and “The Naked Street,” 1955). He played earnest scientists in science fiction/horror films: “Killers From Space” (1954), “It Conquered the World” (1956) and “Beginning of the End” (1957, about giant grasshoppers in Chicago). There was also cold war science fiction anti-Communism: “Red Planet Mars” (1952).
Other movies included “East of Sumatra” (1953), “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef” (1953), “A Rage to Live” (1965), “Texas Across the River” (1966), “Sergeant Ryker” (1968), “The Ballad of Josie” (1968), “The Five-Man Army” (1969), “The Clonus Horror” (1979), “The Guns and the Fury” (1981), “Savannah Smiles” (1982), “Number One With a Bullet” (1986), “Addams Family Values” (1993), “The House on Haunted Hill” (1999) and “Men in Black II” (2002).
In 1955 Mr. Graves began his career as a television series regular as the star of “Fury,” a western family adventure series about a rancher named Jim Newton, his orphaned ward and the boy’s black stallion. It ran until 1959 on NBC, helped pioneer television adventure series and solidified Mr. Graves’s TV credentials.
Some of his hundreds of television credits include “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Whiplash” (1961), “The Dean Martin Show” (1970), the Herman Wouk mini-series “The Winds of War” (1983) and “War and Remembrance” (1988), “Fantasy Island” (1978-83) and “7th Heaven” (1999-2005). He served as the host or narrator for numerous television specials and performed in television movies of the week like “The President’s Plane Is Missing” (1973), “Where Have All the People Gone” (1974) and “Death Car on the Freeway” (1979).
Mr. Graves played his most famous television character from 1967 to 1973 in “Mission: Impossible,” reprising it from 1988 to 1990. He was Jim Phelps, the leader of the Impossible Missions Force, a super-secret government organization that conducted dangerous undercover assignments (which he always chose to accept). After the tape summarizing the objective self-destructed, the team would use not violence, but elaborate con games to trap the villains. In his role, Mr. Graves was a model of cool, deadpan efficiency.
But he was appalled when his agent sent him the script for the role of a pedophile pilot in “Airplane!” (1980). “I tore my hair and ranted and raved and said, ‘This is insane,’ he recalled on “Biography” in 1997. Some of the role’s lines (“Have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”) looked at first as if they could get him thrown in jail, never mind ruining his career. He told his agent to tell David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, the director-producers, to find themselves a comedian. He relented when the Zucker brothers explained that the secret of their spoof would be the deadpan behavior of the cast; they didn’t want a comedian, they wanted the Peter Graves of “Fury” and “Mission: Impossible.”
Mr. Graves used his familiar earnest, all-American demeanor in service of some of the comic movie’s most outrageous moments. He reprised the role of Captain Oveur in “Airplane II” in 1982.
Starting in the mid-1980s Mr. Graves was the host of a number of television science specials on “Discover.” In 1987, he became the host of the Arts and Entertainment Network’s long-running “Biography” series, narrating the lives of figures like Prince Andrew, Muhammad Ali, pioneers of the space program, Churchill, Ernie Kovacs, Edward G. Robinson, Sophia Loren, Jackie Robinson, Howard Hughes, Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Winters.
In 1997, Mr. Graves was the subject of his own “Biography” presentation, “Peter Graves: Mission Accomplished.” In 2002, Mr. Graves was interviewed for a special about the documentary series, “Biography: 15 Years and Counting.”
Mr. Graves won a Golden Globe Award in 1971 for his performance in “Mission: Impossible” and in 1997, he and “Biography” won an Emmy Award for outstanding informational series.
In 1998, he joined his wife, Joan, in an effort to get Los Angeles to ban gasoline-powered leaf blowers from residential areas, testifying before the City Council, “’We’re all victims of these machines.”
He is survived by his wife, Joan Graves, and three daughters, Amanda Lee Graves, Claudia King Graves and Kelly Jean Graves.