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Peter Graves and James Arness: The ‘Mission Impossible’ and ‘Gunsmoke’ Stars Were Real Life Brothers!

Find out how similar and different these classic TV stars were from each other

Peter Graves and James Arness were best known for their iconic television roles of Jim Phelps and Matt Dillon on Mission Impossible and Gunsmoke, respectively. But likely more important to the two men — and their family — was the fact that they were, first and foremost, brothers.

It’s not like it was something they hid from the public, but it’s a fact that really hasn’t been discussed very much in the media — surprising given how big their TV series were.

“Only about half the public realizes we’re brothers,” Peter Graves told The Times Herald in 1972. “Jim came out here to Hollywood while I was still back in Minnesota. He’d already appeared in The Farmer’s Daughter with Loretta Young while I was still going to college. I came out here [to California] for the same reason Jim did — to become an actor. He was doing movies and his career was going along well when Gunsmoke came along.”

Geoffrey Mark, who has been described as a walking encyclopedia of pop culture knowledge, notes, “It wasn’t widely out there in the 1960s when it was going on, because even though both shows — Mission Impossible and Gunsmoke — were on CBS, for whatever reasons, the powers that were didn’t really want to make that big a deal out of it for publicity’s sake. Although well known, they were such very different shows.

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Gunsmoke, once it expanded from half an hour to one-hour,” he adds, “could not continue to be just another Western. It had to have hour-long plots, and to have an hour of plot, you had to have an entry; a mystery to solve or a problem of some sort to solve. It’s what made Gunsmoke very different from many of the other Westerns that were on, including Bonanza.

“One would’ve thought that when Mission Impossible started, that there would have been a big publicity push — ‘Oh, look, now we have two brothers; two handsome rugged men who are part of the CBS stable,’ but they didn’t, most likely because Peter was not the original star of Mission Impossible, given that he was a replacement for the original star, Steven Hill. I don’t think they wanted to bring attention to the fact that there was a replacement.”

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Peter Graves and James Arness: Their Early Days

James Arness in his official U.S. Army photo, 1944
James Arness in his official U.S. Army photo, 1944U.S. Army

The Peter Graves and James Arness story begins with the birth of James King Aurness on May 26, 1923 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to businessman Rolf Cirkler Aurnes and journalist Ruth Duesler. His younger brother, Peter — born Peter Duesler Aurness — arrived three years later on March 18, 1926.

James Arness graduated from high school in 1942, having found work as a courier for a jewelry wholesaler, logging in Pierce, Idaho and unloading railway boxcars at freight yards in Minneapolis. He attended Beloit College and joined the campus choir while also becoming a member of fraternity Beta Thea Pi.

He was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1943 and was one of the soldiers to land on Anzio Beachhead on January 22, 1944. Suffering a severe leg injury at the Battle of Anzio, he would be honorably discharged on January 29, 1945. His military decorations include the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the American Campaign Medal, the European African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

Promotional portrait of actor Peter Graves, for the movie The Yellow Tomahawk, 1954
Promotional portrait of actor Peter Graves, for the movie The Yellow Tomahawk, 1954 Archive Photos/Moviepix/Getty Images

In the meantime, Peter Graves graduated high school in 1944 and, upon doing so, began serving in the United States Air Force during World War II for the next year, where he reached the rank of corporal and was awarded the American Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. Following the war, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota on the Gl Bill, and was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

Coming from German descent, Peter Graves and James Arness realized, following World War II, it would be smart to change their last names, so Peter went with Graves (a name on the family’s maternal side) while James changed Aurness to Arness.

“After World War II,” says Geoffrey Mark, “people were not beating their breasts saying, ‘Look at me, I’m German, which is why James changed the spelling and pronunciation of his name and Peter didn’t use it at all.”

Hollywood Draws Both Peter Graves and James Arness In

James Arness began his entertainment career as a radio announcer at a local Minneapolis station. From there he hitchhiked to Hollywood, determined to break into films and making his debut in The Farmer’s Daughter (1947). This was followed by such movies as The Man from Texas (1948), Wagon Master (1950), Two Lost Worlds (1951), The Thing from Another World (1951), Horizons West (1952) and Hondo (1953). He was cast as Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke in 1955, playing the character in 635 episodes between 1955 and 1975. It should be noted that in the first episode, he was introduced by none other than John Wayne (see the video above).

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Peter Graves made his movie debut (as Peter Dandridge) in Rogue River (1951), followed by a number of films, among them Fort Defiance (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953), The Long Gray Line (1955), The Night of the Hunter (1955) and A Stranger in My Arms (1959). He was a series regular on Fury (1955 to 1960), Whiplash (1959 to 1960) and Court Martial (1965 to 1966). As noted, when Steven Hill left Mission Impossible, Graves stepped in as IMF (Impossible Missions Force) director Jim Phelps, who he played from 1967 to 1973. It’s a role he would reprise in the 1988 to 1990 revival series of the same name.

Comparing and contrasting their characters

Actor James Arness (right) with his brother, actor Peter Graves, late 1960s
Actor James Arness (right) with his brother, actor Peter Graves, late 1960sGetty Images

As Geoffrey Mark explains it, as an actor Peter Graves was frequently challenged whereas James Arness … well, not so much. This due to the basic nature of the characters they were playing on their shows.

“When you do any kind of research about Mission Impossible, ignoring the films, which these people had nothing to do with, the only negative publicity is that the actors on Mission came and went and the show’s quality would rise and fall depending who the regular characters were any given season,” he says. “Nothing about Peter being bad or hard to work with. I don’t think either of the men really had any negative publicity, like, ‘Oh, look, he was drunk. Oh, look, he’s cheating on his wife.’ It’s not what their personas were about. I also think Peter was a more open person and, quite frankly, the better actor.

“He had to be on Mission Impossible, because he wasn’t just playing the lead character in charge,” he adds, “because the premise of the show demanded that the lead character play other parts within the show. Peter had to do accents, he had to have makeup jobs, he played the good guys, he played the bad guys. Peter’s character got shot and almost killed. It required him to flex his acting muscles.

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“Whereas with James Arness and Gunsmoke, it’s not that he was a bad actor, it’s just that he was doing it by rote. There was nothing new for Marshal Dillon, I don’t think. Once the hour-long show started and they had time for plot, I don’t think Marshal Dillon’s character grew or changed very much. Other characters’ did, but not him. And again, because of the rigors of the show, of the demands of the plot conceit, Peter had to be James Phelps to open every show, close every show and set up the plot for every show, but the other 50 minutes he was playing somebody else. So it was an acting challenge on a weekly basis that James Arness did not have, because Marshal Dillon pretty much stayed the same the whole time.”

Following Gunsmoke, James Arness starred in the series How the West Was Won (1977 to 1979), McClain’s Law (1981 to 1982) and reprised the role of Dillon in six TV movies between 1987’s Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge and 1993’s Gunsmoke V: One Man’s Justice (1993).

Peter Graves appeared in about a dozen or so films, including 1980’s Airplane as Captain Clarence Oveur, the insane humor of which opened him up a whole new fan base. There were also television guest appearances and TV movies, the last being a 2007 episode of WorldGirl.

Peter Graves and James Arness didn’t really spend much time talking about each other in the media, although Marshall did note to The Times Herald, “I never really envied Jim’s success in Gunsmoke. I thought he was in a great spot and I was just looking for one of my own. I’ve been offered several Gunsmoke scripts in which I’d play Jim’s worthless brother. We’ve talked over the scripts, but didn’t feel any of them were quite right for us. Several years ago, I directed an episode of Gunsmoke. Wasn’t bad for a first attempt, but acting is what I wanted.”

Geoffrey elaborates, “Peter Graves and James Arness got along, they loved each other, but I think because of their background, men didn’t show affection. I don’t think there was hugging and kissing on the cheek going on between them, but I think they loved each other.

“They each were happy for the other one’s success. I never heard Peter say anything really negative about James other than some of what I brought up here, that they were very different people and Peter did not want to get locked into only one thing. He wanted a variety of things to do, and he was more open. I think those are the only things Peter said to me about James that was gossipy or in any way trying to put him down. Just the differences between them and that’s not a good thing or a bad thing.”

James Arness was married twice and had 3 children. He died of natural causes on June 2, 2011 at the age of 88. Peter Graves was married once and also had 3 children. He died on March 14, 2010 at the age of 83 of a heart attack.

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