Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

Peter Graves

Jim Phelps has accepted his final assignment. Graves, best known as the implacable leader of TV's Mission: Impossible team from 1967 to '73, died March 14 at 83. Thus ended a 60-year career in which his flinty features, suitable for carving on Mount Rushmore, and his sonorous baritone made him one of the small screen's leading authority figures — an eminence he occasionally subverted in irreverent comedies like Airplane! and Men in Black II.

The younger brother of Gunsmoke star James Arness, Graves arrived in Hollywood by 1950 and got his first important role, as the all-American soldier who turns out to be a German spy in Billy Wilder's 1953 war comedy Stalag 17. The film provided an early view of Graves' ability to play both a hero type and its own internal contradiction. Throughout the '50s he alternated supporting parts in big films (The Night of the Hunter, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell) with leads in It Conquered the World and other sci-fi anticlassics ripe for later mockery on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Mission: Impossible was '60s TV's answer to the James Bond films: instead of a brawny superhero, the show brought teamwork, disguise and a deadpan theatricality to international espionage. And at its center was Graves as its smooth, smart boss. He parodied that gravitas in his goofily predatory turn as the Airplane! pilot with an unusual interest in young boys. He then effortlessly switched back to paternal omniscience as the host of A&E's Biography. Seemingly born middle-aged, Graves wore well, guesting on 7th Heaven into his 80s. His domestic life was steady too: he is survived by Joan Endress, his wife of nearly 60 years.

Richard Corliss

This text originally appeared in the March 29, 2010 issue of TIME Magazine.