03.15.10 8 years ago 10 Comments

Peter Graves, the actor who starred in the “Mission: Impossible” TV series and hosted A&E’s “Biography,” died yesterday of a heart attack. He was 83.

It was a testament to Mr. Graves’s earnest, unhammy ability to make fun of himself that after decades of playing square he-men and straitlaced authority figures, he was perhaps best known to younger audiences for a deadpan line in “Airplane!” (“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”) and one from a memorable Geico car insurance commercial (“I was one lucky woman”)…

Mr. Graves played his most famous television character from 1967 to 1973 in “Mission: Impossible,” reprising it from 1988 to 1990. He was Jim Phelps, the leader of the Impossible Missions Force, a super-secret government organization that conducted dangerous undercover assignments (which he always chose to accept)… In his role, Mr. Graves was a model of cool, deadpan efficiency.

But he was appalled when his agent sent him the script for the role of a pedophile pilot in “Airplane!” (1980). “I tore my hair and ranted and raved and said, ‘This is insane,’ he recalled on “Biography” in 1997. Some of the role’s lines (“Have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”) looked at first as if they could get him thrown in jail, never mind ruining his career. He told his agent to tell David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, the director-producers, to find themselves a comedian. He relented when the Zucker brothers explained that the secret of their spoof would be the deadpan behavior of the cast; they didn’t want a comedian, they wanted the Peter Graves of “Fury” and “Mission: Impossible.” [NYT]

Bummer. Out of respect for the dead, I won’t make a pun involving his last name.

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