As the head of an elite squad of secret agents in the '60s TV classic Mission: Impossible
, Peter Graves was always in charge. The silver-haired actor's air of gravitas was his trademark, making him a natural host of the A&E documentary series Biography
. Not that he couldn't loosen up: In 1980 Graves played an unhinged pilot in Airplane!
asking a young boy some rather inappropriate questions like "Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?" without ever cracking his serious facade. But to loved ones, Graves-who died at 83 of an apparent heart attack at his L.A. home on March 14-was someone else. A devoted family man, Graves wed Joan, his high school sweetheart, in 1950 and doted on his three daughters and six grandkids. "He had a deep dedication to his family," says his Mission: Impossible
costar Barbara Bain. "He personified something midwestern: solid, direct and no-nonsense. He was a man, not a boy."
Born Peter Aurness in Minneapolis, Graves took his grandfather's last name so as not to be confused with his older brother, Gunsmoke
star James Arness. Although he loved acting, family always came first. Indeed, he couldn't have scripted a better final day for himself: Before he died, Graves spent the morning having an early birthday brunch (he was to turn 84 on March 18) with his family. Says Barbara Rush, who played his wife on TV's 7th Heaven
: "It's a great way for him to go, but we were just not prepared. We're going to miss him."