Peter Graves, suave and versatile

The man from ``Mission: Impossible'' - and from lots of other action films and TV shows - is looking out the pilot's side window of a helicopter. He's glancing up from a magnifying glass. He's walking and talking his way through a laboratory. He's doing it all as host-narrator of ``Discover: The World of Science,'' and in the process he's bringing an appealing tone of common sense and involvement to this serious-minded program.

Mr. Graves is a veteran TV narrator - one of the best. His work on ``Discover'' is intelligent, mostly low key, and full of intonations that signal surprise or fascination at just the right points.

``What you really need to do is to ask the questions and really listen to the answers,'' he told me over lunch not long ago. ``Then you consider the whole thing in such a way that you're letting the audience know all the stuff you want them to know.''

You mean you try to be the viewer's agent, registering their reactions as you guide them through the sometimes arcane subjects?

``You hope to do that,'' he says - white-haired, hearty, with ruddy good looks. ``People have asked me whether I have a science background. No, but I have a great curiosity about the kinds of things we do on `Discover.'''

And those can be, well, exciting. Once the show was on location on Hawaii's Kilauea volcano ``It's where hot lava dumps into the sea,'' Graves recalls. ``We did the shots in the midst of the molten lava and then turned around to go back - only the path we'd come on no longer existed! So we had to find a new way out. We got hot feet.''

Another time at Boston's Musuem of Science, Graves had to sit in an metal cage 30-feet from the floor while huge bolts of electricity played on the frame around him. ``Some law of physics says the electric shock won't come inside the cage. They told me not to touch the frame.'' And he didn't.

Those sound almost like adventures on ``Mission: Impossible'' - the memorable TV spy-action series of the '60s and '70s that spawned lots of copycat shows through the years. Oct. 23 marks its return to network TV on ABC. And in the starring role of the show's Mr. Phelps will be ... the very same Peter Graves who played it originally.

Does it require a shift in gears to be a reasonably sober-sided TV host after dramatic roles like ``Mission Impossible''?

``Yes, it does,'' he explains. ``In drama you're interacting with other actors to tell the story. The camera is like the theater, it's the artistic fourth wall. In a screen play you don't look at the camera and communicate with it. But with hosting, you're looking right into the lens and talking to the people. It is a different style, and it's fascinating.''

Are we seeing the real Peter Graves when he's hosting?

``After a certain amount of time in the business,,'' he says, ``you're playing yourself anyway. Every actor starts out saying I can play anything in the world: `I'm only 25, but I can be a man 70 years old. I'll put on a gray wig and do it.' But nobody hires you for that. You have to play yourself on the screen. I bring a lot of Peter Graves to the hosting. And I suppose, too, after people have known you from television, they want to see you pretty much as you are.''

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