Peter Graves, who died yesterday at 83, was beloved by at least two generations for a pair of roles so different that only a brilliant actor could pull them both off.
Graves is best known for his work as Jim Phelps on “Mission: Impossible.” Tall and suave, he oozed charisma leading a team of special agents who took their directions from a tape recording that self-destructed once its message was imparted. At the time, he was following older brother James Arness' success on "Gunsmoke." But his role became a signature, and the show's success spawned the movies starring Tom Cruise.
As Phelps, he was no-nonsense, with no fear, a straight arrow agent who never panicked. And was never funny.
For people like me who were born after that series’ initial run, Graves has been and will always will be Captain Oveur from “Airplane!” It’s a measure of how funny Graves was in that movie that his lines – all of them – are still funny today if you quote them to a friend in a bar while you are drunk. Here are those lines, one more time:
“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”
“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”
“Roger, Roger. What's our vector, Victor?”
“You ever seen a grown man naked?”
“All right, give me a Hamm on 5, hold the Mayo.”
The reason Graves’ role in that movie is so important, in all its grand lunacy, is because it showed how brilliant comedy could be when you took an otherwise serious actor and made him say ludicrous things without a touch of irony. Leslie Nielsen also starred in “Airplane!” and was known primarily as a serious actor in his early career. That all changed for him with “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun!” many years later. Both Nielsen and Graves showed that comedy can be amplified when the character delivering the line doesn’t know it’s funny. And that’s why those lines still hold up all these years later.
It’s tribute to Graves that he could inhabit such a defining comedic role and still retain enough dramatic gravitas to host A&E’s “Biography” for a long and fruitful run. That’s what great actors are able to do. They have a force of personality that enhances both the dramatic and the absurd. And that’s why Peter Graves will be dearly missed.