Peter Graves, the tall, stalwart actor likely best known for his portrayal of Jim Phelps, leader of a gang of special agents who battled evil conspirators in the long-running television series "Mission: Impossible," died Sunday.
Graves died of an apparent heart attack outside his Los Angeles home, about a week shy of his 84th birthday, publicist Sandy Brokaw said.
He had just returned from brunch with his wife and kids and collapsed before he made it into the house, Brokaw said. One of his daughters administered CPR but was unable to revive him. Graves' family doctor visited the house and believed he had a heart attack, Brokaw said.
Although Graves never achieved the stardom his older brother, James Arness, enjoyed as Marshall Matt Dillon on TV's "Gunsmoke," he had a number of memorable roles in both films and television.
Normally cast as a hero, he turned in an unforgettable performance early in his career as the treacherous Nazi spy in Billy Wilder's 1953 prisoner-of-war drama "Stalag 17."
He also masterfully lampooned his straight-arrow image when he portrayed bumbling airline pilot Clarence Oveur in the 1980 disaster movie spoof "Airplane!"
Graves appeared in dozens of films and a handful of television shows in a career of nearly 60 years.
The authority and trust he projected made him a favorite for commercials late in his life, and he was often encouraged to go into politics.
"He had this statesmanlike quality," Brokaw said. "People were always encouraging him to run for office. But he said, 'I like acting. I like being around actors.'"
Graves' career began with cheaply made exploitation films like "It Conquered the World," in which he battled a carrot-shaped monster from Venus, and "Beginning of the World," in which he fought a giant grasshopper.
He later took on equally formidable human villains each week on "Mission: Impossible."
Every show began with Graves, as agent Phelps, listening to a tape of instructions outlining his team's latest mission and explaining that if he or any of his agents were killed or captured "the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions."
The tape always self-destructed within seconds of being played.
The show ran on CBS from 1967 to 1973 and was revived on ABC from 1988 to 1990 with Graves back as the only original cast member.
The actor credited clever writing for the show's success.
"It made you think a little bit and kept you on the edge of your seat because you never knew what was going to happen next," he once said.