Peter Graves has died at the age of 83. It surprised me that he was only 83, because he had such a long career that it seemed like he was in everything, in every era. Black-and-white movies from the ’50s; TV in the ’60s; Airplane! and that Mission: Impossible revival in the ’80s; all the A&E stuff, where he became identified with the network to those of us who watched it; commercials; personal appearances; unsold pilots; cameos in big movies; the guy worked forever and did everything. He even returned to Mission: Impossible for the 1988 revival, which managed to last two seasons (the famous thing about it was that it was greenlit during a writers’ strike, and the production company re-used scripts from the original series until the strike ended).
And like most good “working actors,” he developed a persona that was clear enough that casting directors would keep him in mind, but not so set in stone that he would typecast himself out of contention. The key to that kind of actor is that he projects a sense of authority: even if he’s not playing an actual authority figure, you feel like he’s in charge of a situation and you believe it when other characters listen to him. That’s why he could step into Mission: Impossible after Steven Hill left, with no explanation as to how he got there or what happened to the other guy, and make the transition seem natural. Because you could always believe that other characters would defer to him. Just as you felt like you could trust him when he told you the story of a celebrity or historical figure, and just as you could believe (along with the other older actors in Airplane!) that he was treating a ridiculous line with the seriousness it required.
Graves has the first Airplane! scene in this video, a compilation of scenes from that movie and the film it’s based on.