Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Sad passings

Mr. Phelps (1926-2010)

When an actor has been around as long as Peter Graves was, how you remember him will be directly related to how old you are. Many baby-boomers, for example, will forever think of him as Jim Phelps, the cool, authoritative leader of the Impossible Mission Force. For the benefit of younger people, that would be the same character played by Jon Voight in the first Mission: Impossible feature film. No, not the one played by Tom Cruise. I could go into why Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, is the main character in the Mission: Impossible movies and not Jim Phelps, but it’s complicated and spoiler-ish and I’m not going there. Anyway, it says something about Graves’s work on that series that we don’t even remember that he wasn’t the original leader of the IMF. During the first season, it was Steven Hill playing Daniel Briggs.

Interestingly, the other main role Graves played which was put in the headlines alongside, or in some cases instead of, Jim Phelps was Capt. Clarence Oveur in the manic 1980 parody Airplane! Like fellow 1950s/1960s era action/adventure heroes Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges, he gamely sent up his own image as a straight arrow man’s man. For some reason, it didn’t seem as creepy then as it does now when Graves chatted up the young boy on the obligatory visit to the cockpit by asking him about gladiator movies and Turkish prisons. Perhaps it was funny and not icky because Graves delivered the lines completely as normal and deadpan, as if he himself were not aware of their implication. He was more clueless than pederast.

Younger folk are likely to think of Graves as a narrator and host of documentary television shows, notably the Biography series. But mostly he spent six decades playing all sorts of dramatic roles. His earlier movie credits read like a compendium of action/adventure flicks: Rogue River, Fort Defiance, Red Planet Mars, Stalag 17, East of Sumatra, Killers from Space, The Yellow Tomahawk. It goes on and on. He also had a slew of guest appearances on television shows over the years although, as far as I can tell, never on the one that starred his older brother James Arness (their birth surname was Aurness), Gunsmoke. He did, however, direct one episode of that series. (His only other directing credit was an episode of Mission: Impossible.) He had a recurring role as Stephen Collins’s father on 7th Heaven, and he played Palmer “Fred” Kirby in the miniseries The Winds of War and its sequel War and Rembrance.

But if you are interested in where I fit into all this chronologically, I can tell you that, when I think of Peter Graves, the role which I think of first and foremost always is another Jim, Jim Newton. If that name doesn’t ring a bell with you, then either you are too young or too forgetful. For people who are old enough but too forgetful to remember, listen to these words in your head: “This is the range country where the pounding hooves of untamed horses still thunder in mountains, meadows and canyons. Every herd has its own leader, but there is only one Fury—Fury, King of the Wild Stallions.” If that doesn’t help, then it’s hopeless. But here is the rest of it anyway: “And here in the wild west of today, hard-riding men still battle the open range for a living—men like Jim Newton, owner of the Broken Wheel Ranch and Pete, his top hand, who says he cut his teeth on a branding iron.”

Jim Newton was a rancher whose wife and son had died in a car crash. He adopted a boy from a city orphanage and brought him to live on his ranch. It was all about good, strong values in the mode of Saturday morning TV in the 1950s. Of course, it was this series that Airplane! was partially mocking. The boy in Capt. Oveur’s cockpit was named Joey, the same as the character played by young Bobby Diamond in Fury.

It’s probably worth noting that Graves was the father of three daughters and was married to the same woman for 59 years.

Lost boy (1971-2010)

It’s sad when someone dies at the age of only 38. It’s also sad when we aren’t particularly surprised to hear the name of a former child star in connection with a premature death.

It says something that the only image I could conjure up in my head when hearing the news about Corey Haim was that of an adolescent boy. For me he was frozen back in the days when he had the title role in David Seltzer’s Lucas, in which he was in a puppy love triangle of sorts with Charlie Sheen and Kerri Green (the movie also featured the debut of Winona Ryder), and Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys, which made vampires newly cool (again) and raised the profiles of Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland and Jami Gertz.

Even before those movies, Haim had a fairly high profile. His debut was as the younger brother in Michael Apted’s family drama Firstborn, which starred Terri Garr and Peter Weller. And after that he was in the cast of David Greenwalt’s Secret Admirer, which starred C. Thomas Howell and Kelly Preston and was one of the more underrated movies of the mid-1980s.

For those of us who really hadn’t followed what Haim had been up to since The Lost Boys, the obituaries filled in the gaps: the movies in which he had appeared alongside Corey Feldman, like License to Drive and another one of those 1980s body switch movies (cf. Big, etc.), Dream a Little Dream, in which Jason Robards’s mind somehow winds up in Feldman’s body and Piper Laurie’s winds up in Meredith Salenger’s. Haim was in lots of straight-to-video fare and, we also learned, he and Feldman had starred together in a reality TV series and had been contemplating a follow-up. Surprisingly, it turns out that Haim had had a small role in last year’s Jason Statham actioner Crank: High Voltage, in which the hero has to keep jolting his temporary artificial heart to stay alive long enough to find his real heart.

While there were reports that Haim had lots of potential projects in the pipeline, it was disheartening to read of his problems with drug abuse and the fact that he was apparently living month to month in a cheap apartment with his ill mother.

Oddly, the last time I had actually heard Haim’s name, before it began showing up everywhere on my computer upon his death, was on Irish television in the lyrics of a song by the indie rock band The Thrills. Evoking the notion of dreams gone cold, it employed his name as a kind of shorthand for youthful hopes becoming yesterday’s news. An excerpt:

I came to this city
To build a mountain of envy
To marry a Kennedy

So let’s stay out tonight…

Whatever happened to Corey Haim?

-S.L., 18 March 2010

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive