Los Angeles Peter Graves, the tall, stalwart actor likely best known for his portrayal of Jim Phelps, leader of a gang of special agents who battled evil conspirators in the long-running television series “Mission: Impossible,” died Sunday.
Graves died of an apparent heart attack outside his Los Angeles home, publicist Sandy Brokaw said. He would have been 84 this week.
Graves had just returned from brunch with his wife and kids and collapsed before he made it into the house, Brokaw said. One of his daughters administered CPR but was unable to revive him. Graves’ family doctor visited the house and believed he had a heart attack, Brokaw said.
Although Graves never achieved the stardom his older brother, James Arness, enjoyed as Marshal Matt Dillon on TV’s “Gunsmoke,” he had a number of memorable roles in films and television.
Normally cast as a hero, he turned in an unforgettable performance early in his career as the treacherous Nazi spy in Billy Wilder’s 1953 prisoner-of-war drama “Stalag 17.”
He also masterfully lampooned his straight-arrow image when he portrayed bumbling airline pilot Clarence Oveur in the 1980 disaster movie spoof “Airplane!”
Graves appeared in dozens of films and a handful of TV shows in a nearly 60-year career.
Graves’ career began with cheaply made exploitation films like “It Conquered the World,” in which he battled a carrot-shaped monster from Venus, and “Beginning of the World,” in which he fought a giant grasshopper.
He later took on equally formidable human villains each week on “Mission: Impossible.”
The show ran on CBS from 1967 to 1973 and was revived on ABC from 1988 to 1990 with Graves back as the only original cast member.
He also played roles in such films as John Ford’s “The Long Gray Line” and Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter,” as well as “The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell,” “Texas Across the River” and “The Ballad of Josie.”
Born Peter Aurness in Minneapolis, Graves adopted his grandfather’s last name to avoid confusion with his older brother, James, who had dropped the “U” from the family name.
After two years in the Air Force, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota as a drama major and worked in summer stock before following his brother west to Hollywood.
He found enough success there to send for his college sweetheart, Joan Endress. They were married in 1950 and had three daughters — Kelly Jean, Claudia King and Amanda Lee — and six grandchildren.