When Peter Graves was honored in December at California's 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 who delivers some infamously inappropriate and hilarious lines, including, "Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?" and "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,' " says 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 . . ."
So he turned it down. About 10 minutes later, he got a call from the film's producer, Howard Koch, who asked whether he would meet 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 okay. 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. This year 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.
It was in 1953 that Graves 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. His then-agent, Paul Kohner, got him an interview. "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. 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."
TV superstardom hit in 1967 when he replaced Steven Hill as leader of the Impossible Missions Force on Mission: Impossible. Graves notes: "It was a great example of being right for the part and vice versa."
Graves isn't ready to retire. He received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in October. "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 the Fox series House as a man living in a retirement community.
Graves is always looking for the next great role. "There has got to be some good parts around for guys my age," he says cheerfully.