Monday, March 15, 2010

Peter Graves, R.I.P.

Good morning, Mr. Graves.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: to embark on an acting career that will run for a half-century and win you the admiration and affection of millions of fans.

You’ll start out at the University of Minnesota, where you find that acting is the life for you. You follow your brother, James Arness, out to Hollywood, although you change your last name to avoid confusion with him. He becomes the star of Gunsmoke, while you make a name for yourself on the big screen in 50s science fiction/cold war movies. Some of them are pretty cheesy, turning up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the 80s and 90s, but one of them, It Conquered the World, is actually pretty good – better than most of the ones they show, anyway. Of course, even you’d have to admit it is more entertaining with their smart-ass commentary.

Your biggest impact will be on TV, however, and your most famous role will be that of Jim Phelps, the leader of the Impossible Missions Force on the llong-running CBS series Mission: Impossible. You won’t be there at the beginning; Steven Hill’s the boss when the series first starts. But you replace him for the start of season two, and from then on it’s you that everyone remembers when they think about the secret missions, the brilliant, impossibly complicated schemes, and the tape recorder that self-destructs in five seconds.

It’s a nice gig, good enough that you reprise the role when ABC brings back the series in the 80s. It isn’t the same, of course – sometimes you really can’t go home again – but it’s not an embarrassment either. Wisely, however, you refuse to play Phelps in the Brian DePalma/Tom Cruise big-screen version of MI when you find out that the climax reveals Phelps to be a traitor. You know, just as fans of the show know, that Jim Phelps would never betray his country. Sure, Jon Voight, who winds up playing the role in the movie, is a good actor, as well as a good patriot in real life. But he’s no Jim Phelps, and both you and everyone else knows it.

And then there’s the role of Captain Oveur in Airplane! Sure, you’re afraid it’ll ruin your career, this spoof of the upright, by-the-book professional you’ve always played, but it has just the opposite effect, becoming one of your biggest and most popular roles. Nobody who sees it will ever be able to look at a gladiator movie in quite the same way again.

Finally, there’s the voice of authority you provide on shows like Biography. When you say, “This is Peter Graves for Biography on A&E,” people know you mean it. (That line will accompany you every time one of your movies shows up on MST3K, but it's always done with affection.) Never mind that the careers of many of the people profiled on the show will fail to have longetivity of yours. It's a good series, and you bring to it the same dignity and credibility you've done with the rest of your work, throughout the years. You'll get your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and your many fans will always remember you with fondness.

This tape may self-destruct in five seconds, but your career and its memories will last much longer. Good bye, Peter, and thank you.

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