Beloved, fantastically deadpan actor Peter Graves died Sunday of a heart attack at 83, leading cinéastes to marvel at an enormous résumé that includes the Mission: Impossible TV series and films directed by Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and John Ford. But for me, he’ll always be the pervert pilot in 1980’s Airplane!, one of the funniest movies ever made, regaling an oblivious 10-year-old boy named Joey with wildly inappropriate questions: “Do you like movies about gladiators?” “You ever hang around the gymnasium?” “You ever seen a grown man naked?”
Now seemed like a good time to interview Joey, a/k/a Ross Harris, who lives in Southern California and spent the intervening 30 years both acting (stints on The Love Boat, CHiPs, TJ Hooker, and so forth) and getting into music via Dust Brothers-affiliated electro-rockers Sukia and vibrant collagists DJ Me DJ You. Plus he directed the video for Elliott Smith’s “Miss Misery.” Ross was happy to talk about Peter Graves and Airplane; per the photo above, they’d reunited awhile ago. I forgot to ask him if that’s the same hat, but I bet not.
I was very sorry to hear about Peter Graves. He seemed like a real sweet dude.
He was a really salt-of-the-earth gentleman. I actually got to see him a few months ago, and it was a real treat. The Ojai Film Festival, which is in a little town kind of near where I live, was honoring him, and they asked him what films he wanted to screen, and he chose Airplane. And so, I didn’t tell anybody, but I just showed up there, and then I came down during the Q&A and we kind of reunited and did a Q&A together, and it was really great. It was funny: He was hugging me, he was really hamming it up, and people were going crazy. And then afterwards we got to hang out a little bit, shoot some photos and catch up and stuff. It was really cool, and I feel really great about it, since I hadn’t seen him in 30 years.
Did you reenact the scenes at all?
It’s funny, we didn’t exactly reenact them, but during the Q&A, he was really grabbing me and pulling me into him and stuff like that, and people were laughing and having a good time. It was really fun. And I think he and the audience were really relieved that I wasn’t under a bridge somewhere.
You beat the odds there.
I know I did. I’m in a rare category, I guess.
What do you remember about Airplane? Can you still picture yourself saying, “I’ve never even been in a plane before!” or “Hey, I know you, you’re Kareem Abdul Jabbar”?
Oh, yeah. It’s funny–it must’ve really had an impact on me, because I don’t have a lot of vivid memories from being 10 years old, but I definitely remember a lot of stuff that happened then. What was cool about it is usually when you’re a child actor, basically, they have you in generally just for your scenes. What was nice about it, you know, we were in an airplane, so I was around for a lot of the scenes, because they kind of had to have me in the background–it’s kind of a captive audience thing. So I was actually there for a lot of the filming.
But yeah, I definitely remember going in and doing everything, all the filming. The crazy thing is, I really didn’t get the double entendre, or even if you could call it that–a lot of it was pretty straightforward. But I didn’t get any of that really until I saw the film. A year or so later when I saw it, I got it.
I was gonna ask–what’s so great about those scenes is that you’re so oblivious. Do you have to act oblivious, or were you actually oblivious?
I would like to say that I was acting, you know, but I really was pretty oblivious. The only acting part I was really doing, they really pushed me, they want you to do as broad, bad acting as possible. Most directors I was working with at the time were pushing me in the other direction, to be more natural, and these guys were like, “Really do a big gee whiz and golly,” like that. But no, I really didn’t get much of what was being insinuated there.
I imagine that’s an uncomfortable spot for your parents to be in–I hope they took you aside and were like, “If any one ever starts talking to you like this for real…’
Yeah, well the funny thing is–well, I don’t know how funny it is, but the cool part about it is how I come from a really good family. My parents are still together, and I have a lot of brothers and sisters. And the interesting thing is, growing up, there were a lot of actual predatory types around like that, but they seemed to kind of hone in on the kids that came from a broken family or had a mom that worked: “Oh yeah, you can hang out with me, you can stay out at the beach house with me for the weekend.’ And I never really had that happen to me because they knew, “Oh, he’s got a good mom and a good dad, a family.” And I was kind of off the market, so to speak, which is great. And my parents, they had a good sense of humor about it and realized that the best way to combat stuff like that is to bring it out into the light and satirize it and get it talked about in the general public. And I think they just looked at it that way and just had fun with it.
And also, you really are roughed up by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, you know? As an untrained actor, was he a little too rough at first, or did he do all right?
Well, he’s huge. And at 10 years old he was gigantic to me, he just seemed like this giant. I mean, he was really intimidating, because he’s a painfully shy guy, and I don’t think he even really totally wanted to be in the film. [Laughs.] So he was really just saying what he had to say and then getting out of there. Peter and everybody else made me feel very at home and welcome there, but there was no chit-chat with Kareem, and so when we went directly into him just collaring me, that was real. He was really shaking me around.
I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be a kid on a movie set, like how the other actors talk to you when the cameras aren’t rolling. Did you interact with Peter a lot? Was he like, “I’m sorry I have to say all this strange stuff to you”?
No, he never said that, but I think he was uncomfortable with it. [Laughs.] I think he made sure, when the cameras weren’t rolling, to steer clear of me and stuff, because a lot of the other actors, Leslie Nielson and them, liked to joke around and hang out and stuff like that, but Peter was playing it safe, I guess.
Right. It’s probably better off that way.
It was, yeah.
You said that you watched it the next year, when you were 11. There are boobs in that movie, as I recall.
Yeah, well, I loved it. [Laughs.] I was stoked. It was like the greatest film ever–for an 11-year-old, it is.
Were you recognized a lot in the years afterward? I imagine people approaching you on the street, asking you if you’ve seen a grown man naked.
More when I was younger and definitely through high school, because I always kind of had a baby face, even all through high school. Yeah, I got that a lot, but it never bothered me, because I was very proud of the film. One thing I tell people a lot, when I was a kid, I did like 100 commercials, and I did all kinds of bad TV: CHiPs, Little House on the Prarie, The Love Boat, and stuff like that. And I have a lot of friends that had similar careers, and a lot of it will never be seen again–or very briefly. And to get one or two films that stand the test of time, that people are still talking about today, it’s really nice, because it’s hard if you work all that time, a lot of your youth on something, and no one’s ever going to see it again. [Laughs.] So it’s kind of cool.
It seems like Airplane was just the start of a really wild career: going from The Love Boat and CHiPs to Sukia and DJ Me DJ you to directing the “Miss Misery” video. How does all this stuff happen to one person?
You know it’s funny, because I’m just now getting into my forties, and I look back and go, “Wow.” I’m actually now in my third career. It’s been really great: I’m the kind of person that I constantly want to try something new and challenge myself, and by the time I hit 18-19, I had been doing acting for like 13 years and was burnt out and hit almost a mid-life crisis kind of a thing: “I don’t want to do this anymore, I want to do other things.” And then I met Beck, and got into music and video and stuff like that, and then ended up doing music, and then, just about five or six years ago, I kind of switched over into doing film again, and things are now kind of starting to take off for me doing that, and I just kind of keep going and see where it takes me and just keep trying to have fun.
So you’re focusing more on acting these days than music–are you still musically active at all?
I’m working as an editor and a cameraman, doing a lot of commercial production, but then this year I ended up actually doing some music. I directed some spots for this children’s show called Yo Gabba Gabba! I did a bunch of short-subject, interstitial things for them this year, and then they asked me to do some of the music for it, too. So I dusted off some of the old equipment and did some of the music. So I just kind of stay open to the possibilities. It’s been a good past few years for me.
I think those were all the questions I had–anything else you want to add?
No, just that I feel really fortunate to have worked with somebody like Peter and to get a chance to reunite with him recently. It was really cool, and it really means a lot to me. I mean, it’s just a silly movie and stuff, but still, you know, I guess things always add up to being a little more than that.