'Mission: Impossible' star Peter Graves dies

Known for portrayal of Jim Phelps on long-running TV series

Peter Graves who starred as Jim Phelps on the hit TV series "Mission Impossible," and more recently served as alternating host of the A&E series "Biography," has died.

The actor died Sunday of an apparent heart attack outside his Los Angeles home, a week away from his 84th birthday.

Graves was the younger brother of "Gunsmoke" star James Arness, a TV icon from the '50s. Graves is perhaps also best remembered by Baby Boomers as the ranch owner on the popular Saturday morning TV series, "Fury," the adventures of a boy and his horse. More recently, Graves was featured in the opening scene of "Men in Black II."

Playing against his image as a tall, silver-haired authority figure, Graves co-starred as Captain Oveur in the zany comedies "Airplane!" (1980) and "Airplane II: The Sequel" (1982). Along with such serious acting figures as Robert Stack and, at the time, Leslie Nielsen, Graves was cast because the whacko comedy used his straight-arrow, white-collar image for comic effect by having him utter completely preposterous lines.

Peter Arness was born on March 18 in Minneapolis Minnesota. As a child he excelled at music, playing with dance bands where his tall, blond good looks made him a popular entertainer in the Midwest. At age 16, while still in high school, he became a radio announcer for station WNIN.

After graduation, he enlisted in the Air Force, serving two and a half years. Following his discharge, he entered the University of Minnesota as a drama major, playing lead roles in the college productions. He also performed in summer stock at the Plantation Playhouse on the outskirts of Minneapolis.

During his early 20s, Graves made his living as a radio actor, and eventually moved to Hollywood where he garnered a number of movie roles. His early motion pictures credits include "Rogue River," "Fort Defiance," "The Long Gray Line," "The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell," "A Rage to Live," "Texas Across the River," "Nevada Smith," The Ballad of Josie" and "Five Man Army," and, more recently, "Savannah Smiles."

As he matured, the tall, silver-haired Graves typically played dignified and competent characters. As Jim Phelps, the group leader of a crack team of special operatives on the hugely popular "Mission: Impossible" (1967-73), Graves embodied professionalism and valor. Each show of the Sunday night series began with the tape-recorded words, "Good morning, Mr. Phelps. " began each show. The tape recording described a seemingly impossible mission that usually involved going behind the lines in a dangerous foreign country. When the description of the mission was complete, the tape would self-destruct in a puff of smoke as Phelps pondered whether to involve his crack team of agents. Inevitably, he always undertook the mission.

He played that role from 1967-73, reprising it on a 1988-90 MI series on which he was the only returning member of the original casts.

Graves' good-looks were sometimes used as character camouflage, most notably in his portrayal of a German spy in Billy Wilder's "Stalag 17" (1953). Graves performance as a supposedly all-American POW who turned out to be a vicious Nazi spy was so powerful that he was often typecast following its release. Nevertheless, he stretched his acting talents in such roles Shelley Winters' erratic in the movie adaptation of "The Night of the Hunter" (1955). His other more auspicious credits include supporting roles as military men in John Ford's "The Long Gray Line" and Otto Preminger's "The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell" (both 1955).

Despite such performances, Graves felt his film career was stagnating. That same year, 1955, he signed on to play a rancher in the Saturday morning kids' series about "a horse and the boy who loved him." Although it did not have the clout of acting for Billy Wilder, Graves reportedly attained financial independence with the success of "Fury."

Again, Graves' imposing looks and manner made him ideal for casting as authority figures. During this period in his life, Graves had just the right look to play stalwart scientists and other serious types in such 50s sci-fi fare as the Roger Corman's "Red Planet Mars" (1952), battling the likes of pestilential grasshoppers or other such other-world ogres. Other films of this ilk included "Killers From Space" and "Beginning of the End." Similarly, Graves did numerous commercials, parlaying the same solid image into the likes of "Captain Vitamin" in King Vitamin commercials. During the period, he also showed off his musical talents, singing on "The Dean Martin Show," while playing the clarinet on "The Jonathan Winters Show."

In his post-"Airplane" career, Graves played mainly on TV. His movies for TV included "Death Flight," "Underground Man," "New Orleans Street Force" and "Where Have All The People Gone?" More recently, he co-starred on "These Old Broads" (2001).

In addition to his role as himself in "Men in Black II," Graves also played himself in "House on Haunted Hill."

He and his wife Joan, his college sweetheart, had three daughters – Kelly Jean, Claudia and Amanda.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.