Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Can you fly this plane, and land it?

One by one, we're losing the great ones, and any list of my favorite actors would have Peter Graves way up there. Not for Mission: Impossible, not for being the guy who ran the Broken Wheel Ranch on Fury, (if I ever get a ranch it will called the "Lazy C") and not for any of the dozens of other movies, tv shows, and reverse-mortgage commercials in which he starred.

Here he is on the far right (never a good place to be, but he made it work) as Captain Clarence Oveur, in Airplane!, the 1980 movie that made the world a safe place for Leslie Neilsen (2nd from right) as well. Rounding out the cockpit here are Julie Hagerty and Lorna Patterson. A great movie, and it all depended on the marquee value of guys like Neilsen, Graves and Robert Stack and their willingness to make a little fun of their leading-male images. Airplane! was the movie that introduced the whole Abrahams-Zucker-Zucker style of humor to the world, and from it sprang Police Squad! the tv show and three movies, all of which send me to the floor in crippling paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter. The story has it that Leslie Neilsen was offered the part of Dr. Rumack in Airplane! but turned it down, preferring to remain in the drama field, and then was home watching himself play the lead in some made-for-TV picture in which he was trying to be the love interest of some woman 30 years his junior, and it dawned on him that maybe screwball comedy was the way to go. And once he joined up, Peter Graves did too, and their careers did better than ever.

And with lines like these:

Rumack: Captain, how soon can you land?

Captain Oveur: I can't tell.

Rumack: You can tell me. I'm a doctor.

Captain Oveur: No. I mean I'm just not sure.

Rumack: Well, can't you take a guess?

Captain Oveur: Well, not for another two hours.

Rumack: You can't take a guess for another two hours?

an entire nation felt better about themselves. The story concerned everyone getting sick (" I haven't felt this awful since we saw that Ronald Reagan film") from airplane food (Rumack: What was it we had for dinner tonight? Elaine Dickinson: Well, we had a choice of steak or fish. Rumack: Yes, yes, I remember, I had lasagna) and how they made it back to earth. But why am I talking about Airplane! ? You saw it by now, if you were going to.

Most people knew that Peter Graves, born Peter Aurness in 1926, was the younger brother of James Arness. Even their grandfather changed his name, from the original Norwegian "Aursnes," when he immigrated to the USA. I don't believe the brothers got along that well, from what I read. I don't think they acted together in any comedies or anything, although Karl Rove and his brother Dick Cheney were in several Michael Moore movies, garnering rave reviews.

Peter was to turn 84 this week. He went to brunch with his family on Sunday in Los Angeles and died of a heart attack when he returned home.

He takes with him a lot of memories and he left with a gift of laughter. Surely, none of us could ask for more. And don't call me Shirley.

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