Monday, March 15, 2010

"Good morning, Mr. Phelps"

Funny how some things stay in your mind.

A ritual when I was a kid was "Mission: Impossible" at 9 p.m. on Sunday night. My dad loved that show. It was a forerunner to "24" and other anti-terrorist shows. Tom Cruise has starred in about three "MI" movies.

The signature beginning of the show was the lighted fuse that went across the screen as action highlights played behind it. Cool stuff for the late 1960s.

One of its lead actors, Peter Graves, died over the weekend of a heart attack at age 83. Graves was Mr. Phelps, who was the leader of a group of special agents who fought bad guys all over the world. Each episode began with Graves getting directions to a tape recorder. He'd play it -- reel-to-reel in those days -- and ineveitably there would be a packet of pictures of the evil-doers that the would have to infiltrate.

The taping always began the same way: "Good morning, Mr. Phelps." No one knew who the guy was. I'd do my best to follow the complicated story line that set up the plot but when you're 10 or 11, I didn't make it more than a couple of sentences.

It was always ended with something like, "If any of you or caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions."

So it came down to Peter Graves and Martin Landau and Greg Morris and the gang -- good. Everyone else -- bad. Root for good guys.

Graves later gained notoriety in the campy hit movie "Airplane" in 1980. It was a spoof and a total riot. Graves and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were the pilots. A little kid asked to come up into the cockpit and Graves is talking to him about the instruments. Then he said, "Joey, do you know what it means when a dog rubs on your leg?"

Graves also hosted many of the "Biography" episodes on A&E in the 1990s. He never did gain the notoriety of his brother, James Arness, who was Matt Dillon in "Gunsmoke." But he was a solid actor.

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