Peter Graves

This article is about the American actor. For the British actor, see Peter Graves, 8th Baron Graves. For other uses, see Peter Graves (disambiguation).
Peter Graves

Graves in 1967
Born Peter Duesler Aurness
(1926-03-18)March 18, 1926
Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.
Died March 14, 2010(2010-03-14) (aged 83)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Heart attack
Nationality American
Education Southwest High School
Alma mater University of Minnesota
Occupation Actor
Years active 1942–2010
Spouse(s) Joan Endress
(m.1950–2010, his death)
Children 3 daughters
Family James Arness
(brother, deceased)

Peter Graves (born Peter Duesler Aurness; March 18, 1926 – March 14, 2010) was an American film and television actor. He was best known for his role as Jim Phelps in the CBS television series Mission: Impossible from 1967 to 1973 (original) and from 1988 to 1990 (revival). His elder brother was actor James Arness (1923–2011). Graves was also known for his portrayal of airplane pilot Captain Clarence Oveur in the 1980 comedy film Airplane! and its 1982 sequel Airplane II: The Sequel.

Early life

Peter Graves was born Peter Duesler Aurness on March 18, 1926, in Minneapolis, Minnesota,[1][2] the son of Rolf Cirkler Aurness (1894–1982), a businessman, and his wife Ruth (née Duesler, died 1986), a journalist. Graves' ancestry was Norwegian, German, and English. The family name originally was "Aursnes," but when Rolf's Norwegian father, Peter Aursnes, immigrated to New York City in 1887, he changed the spelling.[3] Peter used the stage name "Graves", a maternal family name,[4] to honor his mother's family, and also so as to not be confused with his older brother, James Arness, the star of the television series Gunsmoke.

Graves graduated from Southwest High School in 1944, and spent two years in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. He then enrolled at the University of Minnesota on the G.I. Bill, and was a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.


Graves attending a ceremony to receive a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in October 2009

Graves appeared in more than seventy films, television shows, and television movies during his career. In 1955, Graves joined the NBC television series Fury, as the rancher and adoptive single father, Jim Newton.[5][6] Graves also was featured in the 1953 World War II film, Stalag 17.[7]

From 1960-61 Graves starred as leading character Christopher Cobb in 34 episodes of the TV series Whiplash.[7] In the story line Cobb is an American who arrives in Australia in the 1850s to establish the country's first stagecoach line, using a bullwhip rather than a gun to fight the crooks that he encounters.[5] The series also starred Anthony Wickert. Graves also starred in the British made ITC series Court Martial playing U.S. Army Lawyer Major Frank Whittaker (one of the series two American Leads starring opposite Bradford Dillman's Captain David Young ) as well as guest roles in such series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents,[7] Cimarron City, Route 66 and The Invaders,(episode; 'Moonshot'). In 1967, Graves was recruited by Desilu Studios to replace Steven Hill as the lead actor on Mission: Impossible. Graves portrayed the iconic character of James Phelps, the sometimes-gruff director of the Impossible Missions Force or IMF, for the six following seasons of the series.[5][6] After the series ended in 1973, Graves played a cameo-type support role in the feature film Sidecar Racers in Australia which was released in 1975. Graves also made a guest appearance in the teen soap opera Class of 74 in mid-1974, playing himself.[7]

Graves was cast as Palmer Kirby in the 1983 ABC miniseries, The Winds of War.[8] He played opposite Robert Mitchum, Jan Michael Vincent, Deborah Winters and Ali MacGraw in what became in '83, the second most watched miniseries of all time (after Roots).[6][9]

After playing mainly serious roles in the 1970s, he appeared as Captain Clarence Oveur in the early 80s comedies Airplane! and Airplane II: The Sequel.[5][6][10]

In 1988 a Hollywood writers' strike resulted in a new Mission: Impossible series being commissioned. Graves was the only cast member from the original series to return as a regular, reprising his role as James Phelps, though others (most notably Greg Morris, whose son Phil was a regular in this version) made guest appearances.[5] The series was filmed in Australia, and Graves made his third journey there for acting work. The new version of Mission: Impossible lasted for two seasons, ending in 1990. Bookending his work on Mission: Impossible, Graves starred in two pilot films called Call to Danger, which were an attempt to create a Mission: Impossible-style series in which Graves played a government agent (the Bureau of National Resources) who recruited civilians with special talents for secret missions.[5][11][12]

The 1960s version of the pilot, according to Patrick White in The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier (which White reports was actually the second such pilot, but Graves was not involved in the first), is credited with winning Graves the role of Phelps; after Mission: Impossible ended in 1973, Graves filmed a third version of the pilot (this one structured as a made-for-TV movie), but it did not sell as a series. The concept was later used in the brief 1980s adventure series Masquerade.

Graves with wife Joan Endress in October 2009

During the 1990s, he hosted and narrated the documentary series Biography on A&E.[5] He also acted in a number of films featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, which subsequently featured running jokes about Graves's Biography work and presumed sibling rivalry with Arness. The films that have been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 include SST: Death Flight, It Conquered the World, Beginning of the End, Parts: The Clonus Horror, and an uncredited voiceover in The Eye Creatures. The film Killers from Space was featured in The Film Crew, Michael J. Nelson's follow-up to MST3K.[5] Graves himself parodied his Biography work in the film Men in Black II, hosting an exposé television show. He also played Colonel John Camden on the television series 7th Heaven.

In the 1996 film update of Mission: Impossible, Graves refused to reprise the role of Jim Phelps (played by Jon Voight) after the character was revealed to be a traitor and the villain of the film. In the film, Phelps murders three fellow IMF agents and is killed in a helicopter crash at the end, a decision that disappointed Graves and upset many fans of the original series. [10]

On October 30, 2009, Graves was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6667 Hollywood Blvd.[10]

AirTran Airways featured Graves in a series of web-only "Internetiquette" videos in 2009 in which Graves appeared in a pilot's uniform and references classic Airplane! lines.[13] The videos were part of an AirTran Airways campaign to promote their in-flight wireless Internet access.[13]

In the summer of 2009 Graves signed on as a spokesman for reverse mortgage lender American Advisors Group (AAG).[14] Graves appeared in a national commercial in which he marketed reverse mortgages.[15]

Graves' final project was narrating the computer game epic Darkstar: The Interactive Movie,[16] released November 5, 2010.

Personal life

Handprints of Peter Graves in front of Hollywood Hills Amphitheater at the Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park

Graves was a devout Christian.[17] He was married to Joan Endress Graves from 1950[2] until his death.


After returning from a brunch on March 14, 2010, Graves collapsed and died of a heart attack at the age of 83, four days before his 84th birthday.[18]


Graves was awarded a Golden Globe Award in 1971 for his role as Jim Phelps in the series Mission: Impossible.[19] He also received nominations for an Emmy Award[20] and Golden Globe awards[21] in other seasons of that show. Graves also won a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding informational series in 1997 as host of Biography.[19]



  1. "Peter Graves: Biography". Yahoo! Movies. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
  2. 1 2 "Peter Graves Biography". Film Reference. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
  3. Ancestry of James Arness
  4. James Arness, James E. Wise Jr. (2001) "James Arness: an Autobiography", ISBN 0-7864-1221-6, McFarland & Company Inc., Accessed March 15, 2010
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 InBaseline Database
  6. 1 2 3 4 AmericaMovie Biographies (Peter Graves)
  7. 1 2 3 4 Turner Classic Movies (Peter Graves)
  8. The Winds of War at the Turner Classic Movie Database
  9. "Top 15 Miniseries of all Time". Listverse. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  10. 1 2 3 "'Mission: Impossible' actor Peter Graves dead at 83". CNN. 15 March 2010. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
  11. Call to Danger (1968) (TV) at the Internet Movie Database
  12. Call to Danger (1973) (TV) at the Internet Movie Database
  13. 1 2 "Internetiquette" AirTran Airways. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
  14. "". Retrieved 2012-08-03.
  15. "Peter Graves Reverse Mortgage". American Advisors Group (AAG). Archived from the original on February 27, 2010.
  16. "Peter Graves". FamousDEAD. Retrieved 2012-08-03.
  17. Ronald Bergan. "Peter Graves obituary". the Guardian. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  18. My-Thuan Tran (March 15, 2010). "Peter Graves dies at 83; star of TV's 'Mission: Impossible". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
  19. 1 2 Michael Pollak (March 15, 2010). "Peter Graves, 'Mission: Impossible' Star, Dies at 83". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-03-14.
  20. "Emmy Awards 1969". IMDb. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
  21. "Mission: Impossible". Golden Globe awards. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
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