March 17, 2010 - Rick Chatenever
Even at the peaks of his career, first in the late ’60s, then in 1980, Peter Graves’ star never burned as bright as Tom Cruise’s. It would be like comparing a match to a Roman candle.
When it came to stardom, Graves couldn’t even match his older brother, James Arness, on the seminal TV Western, “Gunsmoke.”
But Graves, who died at age 83 Sunday of a heart attack, played a more crucial role than either of the other actors in shaping the world we live in today.
When he starred as Jim Phelps in 143 episodes of “Mission Impossible” in the ’60s and ’70s, it was a black-and-white TV series about a team of secret agents. Once a week they saved the world by stabilizing shaking governments or destabilizing tyrannical ones in ficticious little kingdoms and dictatorships all over the world.
Tom Cruise was still in grade school. It would be decades before he — and the latest in computer-generated special effects — converted “Mission Impossible” into a billion-dollar action-movie franchise.
In Graves’ day, it was still in the humble realm of series television. It began each week with a tape-recorder giving Jim Phelps his assignment (“should you choose to accept it”) before disintegrating in a cloud of smoke. Graves later confided in an interview that the smoke was produced by a production assistant under the desk exhaling his cigarette up a tube.
In that way-before-computers era, that tape-recorder was as cool as special effects got, even if it seemed wasteful to destroy a new one each week.
Jim Phelps’ crack team of agents — especially Martin Landau and his real-life wife, Barbara Bain — were more like circus performers than the computer-enhanced superheroes of today’s silver screen. Sure, there was a technical wizard among them, but in those pre-digital times, he was more of a Popular Mechanics kind of guy who spent a lot of time crawling around skyscrapers in air-conditioning ducts with a pair of needle-nose pliers.
Rubber masks were a big part of the IMF arsenal. Many of the scripts involved impersonating high-profile government officials. This was a great budget move for Desilu Studios, since they could let the same actor play his role and the spy impersonating him, and then cut to a shot of Martin Landau peeling off his rubber mask at the end of the show.
They played the show as straight action —the fun was trying to solve the mystery before they pulled the masks off. But powerful metaphors lurked amidst the spy gizmos.
Each episode called for the agents to tap into the latest technology, which still had a magic, genie-in-a-lantern quality in those simpler times. Their rubber masks and impersonations prefigured “identity theft” decades before there was any such concept.
Graves wasn’t the sort to beat anyone over the head with intellectual messages. Born in Minnesota, he was always more of an uncomplicated, straight-arrow matinee-idol type … which just added to the joke when the madcap creators of “Airplane!” in 1980 cast him (and fellow stars Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen) so absolutely against type in the film’s never-ending satire. In Graves’ case, he was the distinguished, silver-haired airliner pilot … with a fondness for little boys.
Going on to host the “Biography” series on the A&E Network, Graves was always more working-man actor than superstar. A member of what Tom Brokaw dubbed “The Greatest Generation,” he seemed the kind of stolid Midwesterner you’d assume wasn’t in on the joke — at least if he hadn’t made “Airplane!” you’d assume it.
And yet at the eulogies started pouring in Monday, Graves emerged as someone who had been way ahead of his time, whether warning of a dangerous coming world controlled by technology, or pioneering a new genre of comedy in which everything is, first and foremost, a parody of itself.
That’s the world we live in now. The events of 9/11 threw us into a mindset full of invisible conspiracies, where the real CIA comes up a distant second to the IMF team at making us feel safer.
Like a totem or sacred relic, “Mission Impossible” keeps imprinting our culture. Right now it sounds like a fitting title for the job Barack Obama inherited when he took office.
Like the best of spies, Peter Graves did his part to make all this happen without ever calling attention to himself. And if these days “Mission Impossible” seems like little more than Tom Cruise and a great theme song, well, that wasn’t Jim Phelps’ assignment to fix.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.