Peter Graves was a great actor, and more
Peter Graves, one of TV's truly iconic actors who was simply known as "Jim Phelps" to one generation of viewers and the big screen's Capt. Clarence Oveur to another, died over the weekend at age 83.
It's been fairly standard to reduce Grave's career to those two above-mentioned roles, but he was in so much more — so many roles in so many series — that there was a time when he was one of the most famous, and one of the most ubiquitous, actors in all of television. More than a great actor, he was a great utility player who assumed key supporting roles in shows both major and small.
He was luckless Palmer Kirby, dumped by Polly Bergen's character in "Winds of War," the sprawling ABC mini of the late '80s with a cast of hundreds, and also "War & Remembrance." He popped up in various series in later years — notably an intermittent role on 7th Heaven," and turned up in places where you'd least expect him — "Cold Case," "House," and even (gads) as a voice on "American Dad." Those all might be characterized as "paying the mortgage roles," and so probably was the time he reprised Jim Phelps on the" Mission Impossible" remake.
But for most viewers, he the steady guy on A&E's "Biography," who would introduce hundreds of famous people — many, no doubt, who never achieved quite the level of fame he had had.
It should be added, perhaps, that his later role as the wayward pilot of "Airplane!" ('80) and "A II" ('82) pretty much scrapped any chance he ever had of becoming a late career "serious" actor, who wanted to cap off a long and memorable career with a few Emmy-winning roles, and maybe a Lifetime Achievement nod here or there. He was so brilliant as Capt. Clarence — by far the most memorable of so many memorable characters — that it overshadowed the rest of his career; Graves, in fact, was a more gifted comic actor than dramatic one.
There were many many major roles, in fact, in the early years of television, though he never achieved the tube fame of his brother, James Arness — which is maybe why he pragmatically changed his name. One of the big series was "Fury" — named for an adopted horse full of "fire and fury" (it was kind of a Western; more about a boy and his horse).
Of course, the role that defined everything — and for a time, in a series that defined even the possibilities of dramatic television — was Jim Phelps in "Mission: Impossible."
Unless you were there, it's (a mission) impossible to overstate the power and fame and influence of this series, or of Phelps' classic opener — receiving his instructions, and then that classic magic moment where the tape self-destructs, and cue to the theme music.
"M:I" was the "24" of its day, only bigger. Phelps was such a huge part of its success that the man who played him would spend the rest of his career trying to find a new or different groove. "Airplane!" — of all things — gave him exactly that.