Peter Graves: Actor best known as Jim Phelps in 'Mission: Impossible' and the bungling Captain in 'Airplane!'

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The Independent Online

The silver-haired actor Peter Graves had the right name for his role as the stony-faced boss of an élite American government espionage agency in the television series Mission: Impossible. As Jim Phelps, he was in charge of the Impossible Missions Force's team of skilled operatives who carried out daring, top-secret assignments.

At the beginning of each episode, Graves would undertake a ritual that became ingrained in the minds of television viewers worldwide. Turning on a tape recorder, he heard the words: "Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it, is..." The pay-off line was always: "As usual, should you or any member of your IM Force be captured or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your existence. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim." The sequence was as famous as the theme tune by Lalo Schifrin.

With Mission: Impossible screened at the height of the Cold War, many missions were aimed at "saving" small countries from communism. In this era of James Bond films and television series such as The Saint and The Avengers, gadgets played an important part in the stylish programme.

Phelps' team consisted of the master of disguise Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), the weightlifting champion Willie Armitage (Peter Lupus), the seductress Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) and the electronics whiz-kid Barney Collier (Greg Morris). Leonard Nimoy, as Paris – another master of disguise – was among those who arrived after the departure of the real-life husband and wife Landau and Bain.

Graves joined Mission: Impossible in 1967, at the start of its second series, when Phelps took over from Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) and he described his character as an "impervious genius". His performance won him a 1971 Golden Globe as Best Actor in a Television Series, two years before the programme finished. However, he returned for a disappointing revival (1988-90), which was filmed in Australia to beat a Hollywood writers' strike.

Between the two runs, Graves was persuaded to lampoon his own serious, gruff persona by acting the bumbling Captain Clarence Oveur in the spoof disaster films Airplane! (1980) and Airplane II: The Sequel (1982). These brought him a new generation of fans who would quote deadpan lines such as Oveur's question to a 12-year-old boy: "You ever seen a grown man naked?"

Graves reflected that the Airplane! script was "the craziest thing that I had ever read" and he feared that it might destroy his screen image. "My career had been built on the solid, straightforward, honest, hard-working guy," the actor said. "They explained to me that they wanted all these characters to play it as real as anything we'd ever played on the screen, and straight, never thinking that we were making a joke or saying a funny line. And that appealed to me. I thought, 'Man, I'm on to something,' crossed my fingers and said, 'Sure. I'll do it.'"

Graves was born Peter Aurness in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1926 into a family of Norwegian and German immigrants, and was the younger brother of James Arness, who starred as Marshal Matt Dillon in the long-running television Western Gunsmoke.

He served in the US Army Air Force (1944-45) before studying drama at the University of Minnesota. On making his film debut in Rogue River (1951), a crime drama starring Rory Calhoun, he adopted his maternal grandfather's name of Graves to avoid confusion with his brother.

The actor was soon getting regular screen roles and working with leading directors such as Billy Wilder in Stalag 17 (1953, playing an undercover Nazi spy), John Ford in The Long Gray Line (1955), Charles Laughton in Night of the Hunter (1955) and Otto Preminger in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955). He also gained a cult following as scientists in the low-budget sci-fi films Killers from Space (1954), It Conquered the World (1956) and Beginning of the End (1957).

Graves' television career took off when he starred in Fury (1955-60) as Jim Newton, a widowed rancher who adopts an orphaned boy. He followed it by playing the American stagecoach pioneer Christopher Cobb in Whiplash (1960-61), an Australian Western series, and the military lawyer Major Frank Whittaker in the British-made Court Martial (1965-66).

His later television roles included Captain Erik Von Voorten in Fantasy Island (1978-83), Palmer Kirby in both The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988), and John Camden, "the Colonel", in the teen drama 7th Heaven (1997-2007). He also narrated the documentary series Biography (1987-1994).

Graves was disappointed with the film versions of Mission: Impossible, which rewrote history, with Phelps portrayed – by Jon Voight – as a traitor who murdered three IMF agents in the first picture, which was released in 1996.

The actor's 60-year marriage to Joan Endress was one of the most solid in Hollywood.

Anthony Hayward

Peter Aurness (Peter Graves), actor: born Minneapolis, Minnesota 18 March 1926; married 1950 Joan Endress (three daughters); died Pacific Palisades, California 14 March 2010.