The real story of the ''Aurness'' brothers

Spies, westerns, and stage names.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a Hollywood pair of brothers quite like Peter Graves and Jim Arness. Their combined influence on television in the '60s and '70s made the twosome unmissable. Chances are, if you were flipping through the channels back then, you would have caught one — if not, both — brothers on your screen. 

Born Peter and James Aurness, the brothers had different paths, but both were hugely successful. James, the older brother, was drafted into the United States Army during World War II in 1943. Because his frame prohibited his wishes of being a fighter pilot, James instead reported as a rifleman to Fort Snelling, before being deployed to Italy in January of '44.

Meanwhile, younger brother Peter was in his senior year at Minneapolis' South West High School. Upon graduation, it was Peter who served in the Air Force, reaching the rank of Corporal before demobilization in 1945. For his efforts, Peter was awarded the American Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. When he returned stateside, Peter used the G.I. Bill to enroll at the University of Minnesota. He studied drama, capitalizing on his lifelong love of performing.

While Peter was studying, James was already entertaining audiences as a radio announcer on WLOL in the Twin Cities. So determined was he to make a career as an actor that the elder Aurness hitchhiked his way from the Midwest straight through to Hollywood. 

As James was trying his hand in the movies, Peter was gaining experience through work at local theaters. When James signed a promising contract with RKO, the studio immediately changed his last name to "Arness," dropping the "U" for good.

Shortly thereafter, Peter followed in his brother's footsteps, seeking his fortune out West. He adopted the stage name "Graves" to distinguish himself from his brother, who, around that time, had found his breakthrough role in Gunsmoke.

Gunsmoke was already on the air for 10 years when Peter Graves starred in Mission: Impossible, but that doesn't mean his family was any less excited. Instead, according to a 1976 interview in The Richmond Times, Graves and Arness both had equal support back home.

"My dad didn't miss a single Gunsmoke or Mission: Impossible episode," said Graves. "He would make sure his schedule never interfered with watching these two shows."

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13 Comments

rb5391 1 month ago
shame peter graves didnt guest star on Gunsmoke...would have liked to see them draw down on each other...their mom must be so overwhelmed....one son is matt dillion, your other son is jim phelps....wow...
GOOSEYGOOSE9 1 month ago
Peter graves was on Alfred Hitchcock.
Bapa1 1 month ago
....and yet they never worked together. Both brothers enjoyed successful careers, good for them. I saw a documentary on TV (PBS?) and Peter Graves recounted the story where both brothers were shooting their respective Western series in the same vicinity. Graves stripped down naked and rode his horse on the set while his brother was filming a scene.
Lantern 1 month ago
I love Peter Graves in the film "Stalag 17" where - SPOILER ALERT - his character turns out to be the snitch.
GOOSEYGOOSE9 1 month ago
I liked Peter graves on the Virginian as guest.
GOOSEYGOOSE9 1 month ago
James arness and Peter graves brothers I liked fury and court martial as well as mission impossible and gunsmoke. I liked Peter graves as guest star on tv shows.
Runeshaper 1 month ago
They were both GREAT actors! Sounds like they supported each other and had support from their dad as well, which is wonderful (-:
Irish 1 month ago
Awww... what a nice story. I'm a huge fan of both brothers. Although I'm not a "spy" program watcher, I loved Peter in every other film or guest spot. Watching Guns right now on MeTv!!!
BorisK 1 month ago
Peter Graves was totally cool in Mission Impossible -- he really made the show after Steven Hill left after Season 1 (who just didn't have the 'it' thing).
cperrynaples BorisK 1 month ago
Actually, Hill's issues came because his Jewish beliefs prohibited him from working on Saturdays! This topic was explored on AITF when Archie hired an orthodox TV repairman! He put a curse on Archie which can't be translated on this board...LOL! Go to IMDB to find what it means!
DrDoDoo cperrynaples 1 month ago
Only partially correct. It was more than just Saturdays, it was from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. This meant that Friday shooting was limited to a short window. My assumption is that the Jewish holidays also caused disruptions in MI shooting schedule. My recollection was that he was also difficult to work with unrelated to religious beliefs. If you watch the series, you see his character's presence get reduced to the point it is almost eliminated.

I think he was ignored by Hollywood until his part in Law & Order.

I give the guy credit for staying true to his religious beliefs vs. the chasing his career. Sandy Kofax did the same thing. And, I laugh about John Goodman's character in The Big Lebowski refusing to bowl on Shabbos.

While I enjoy the early MI episodes, Peter Graves was a much, much better spy master character.
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