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Peter Graves succeeds in an impossible mission

When Peter Graves was honored last month at the Ojai Film Festival with a lifetime achievement award, the 83-year-old actor was hoping they would screen Billy Wilder's 1953 classic "Stalag 17" in which he played a Nazi spy placed among American POWs in a German camp. Instead the festival chose "Airplane!," the 1980 box office hit disaster spoof in which he played Capt. Clarence Oveur, a pilot with a penchant for little boys -- "Joey, do you like movies about gladiators? . . . Have you ever seen a grown man naked?"

"The audience loved it," he reports. "They fell down laughing."

Everyone, it seems, loves Graves in "Airplane" -- except for Graves, at least initially.

The Minnesota native, who is still best known as the ramrod-straight super spy Jim Phelps on the award-winning CBS series "Mission: Impossible," at first turned down the script for "Airplane!," which was written and directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker.

"I read it and thought, 'Gee, this is dangerous,' " recalls Graves, relaxing in the living room at his Santa Monica home. "It was in terrible taste . . . I read it and thought, 'I can't do this.' "

His wife, Joan, felt the same way. "She said, 'You can't do this.' It was because my career had been [playing] these straight-shooting, iron-rod-up-the-back kind of fellows. This would be a challenge to play a guy who is looking at a little boy."

So he turned it down. About 10 minutes later, he received a call from the film's producer Howard Koch, who asked if he would meet with the young filmmakers. "I went in and said, 'You should have Harvey Korman do it, he would be perfect.' They said, 'We want somebody of your stature and dignity' and so forth who plays it absolutely straight. They had Bob Stack doing the same thing, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen and many others. So I said OK. They say you are supposed to stretch as an actor, so let's go stretch it."

Graves, the baby brother of "Gunsmoke" star James Arness, isn't one to make changes lightly. 2010 marks the 60th anniversary of his career in Hollywood and his 60th wedding anniversary to his college sweetheart. The couple have three daughters and six grandchildren.

After Graves graduated from the University of Minnesota, he decided to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. His wife-to-be soon followed.

"Her father was a wonderful man, a doctor, but very conservative. He wasn't so hot about me being an actor. They made Joan work for a few months to earn the money to come out here. We didn't want to get married until we got their permission, and that hinged on whether I made a start."

But the lanky, blue-eyed Graves landed a starring role in a small film called "Rogue River" and was put under contract by the producers. "I got $125 a week, 40 weeks a year," he recalls. "In those days that was good. She had a small apartment on Franklin Avenue at the Chateau des Fleurs. I rented a room in a rooming house across the street for seven bucks a week and kitchen privileges. You didn't live together in 1949 and '50."

Three years later, he galvanized the screen in Paramount's "Stalag 17" as the undercover Nazi spy Price, whose identity is discovered by a cynical sergeant ( William Holden in his Oscar-winning performance). Even today, that revelation comes as something of a shock.

"I desperately wanted a contract at Paramount," says Graves. He had auditioned for the studio but didn't impress the brass. Still, his then-agent, Paul Kohner, got Graves an interview with the talent department for the role. "I went in and talked for a while and the man said, 'Sorry, kid, you are absolutely wrong for this. I mean the guy is supposed to be a German spy. You look too American, boy.' "

Kohner didn't give up. He was friends with Wilder and arranged a meeting at the filmmaker's house on a Saturday afternoon. "It was a nice time," Graves recalls. And that meet and greet led to a screen test. "They must have tested 50 guys that day. I was good that day and got the part."

Wilder, he says, "was one of the smartest guys in the world." And Holden was "a beauty. He was a big movie star at that time, and he knew it with confidence. He wasn't showing off. He never played the star. He was just a hell of a nice guy."

TV superstardom hit in 1967 when he replaced Steven Hill as the leader of the elite Impossible Missions Force on "Mission: Impossible." Graves notes: "It was a great example of being right for the part and vice versa."

He returned as Phelps in 1988 when the show was resurrected and shot in Australia during the Writers Guild strike.

"I still thought there was life in the thing and me," he says.

There was even talk of doing a feature film version of the series for Paramount, pre- Tom Cruise. "Ed Feldman the producer called me and said, 'Peter, I wanted to let you know that in the next few weeks you are going to see some news about it. We are straightening out the script now.' I said, 'Joyous.' Then the project went somewhere. I can only presume Paramount had in mind what would eventually happen."

Graves isn't ready to retire. He received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in October. "It's a great place in front of Musso and Frank," he says. "I think I have been hanging around so long, I guess they had to give it to me."

He still acts on TV. Graves chuckles when he recalls his guest part on "House" as a man living in a retirement community. "All the girls were after him," Graves says about his character. "There was one woman in particular he fancied, but she demanded too much from him."

Graves is always the working actor, looking for the next great role. "There has got to be some good parts around for guys my age," he says cheerfully.

susan.king@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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