Wednesday, August 24, 2005

OBT: Brock Peters

Brock Peters of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Is Dead at 78
By MEL WATKINS, The New York Times, August 24, 2005


Brock Peters, the versatile film and stage actor, singer and producer who first rose to prominence in the 1960's and 70's with his powerful singing voice and poignant screen portrayals of angry, belligerent black men, died yesterday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 78.

The cause was complications of pancreatic cancer, his companion, Marilyn Darby, told The Associated Press.

Among his most striking roles were the lead in the 1972 Broadway musical "Lost in the Stars" and in the later movie, and the minor but striking part of the man wrongfully accused of rape in the film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird," released in 1962.

Mr. Peters's first screen appearances were in two lavish 1950's all-black musicals directed by Otto Preminger. He was cast as Sergeant Brown, the brutal army officer who harasses Harry Belafonte in "Carmen Jones" (1954), and Crown, the equally terrifying Catfish Row villain who stalks Dorothy Dandridge in the 1959 film adaptation of George Gershwin's classic folk opera, "Porgy and Bess." His explosively convincing performances in the roles proved as much a burden as a blessing.

With his dark skin, searing eyes and intimidating scowl, Mr. Peters was quickly type-cast as the archetypal, menacing, black villain on screen.

"It was almost disastrous," he later told a reporter for The New York World Telegram and Sun. "Producers didn't want to see me. They had liked my performances but couldn't see me as anything but a heavy."

In the early 60's, however, he began stretching out as an actor. In 1962 he received solid reviews for his role as Johnny, a sensitive and complex homosexual trumpet player who befriends Leslie Caron in a seamy London rooming house in the British film "The L-Shaped Room." He also vied with James Earl Jones and won the role of Tom Robinson in the movie version of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, with Gregory Peck winning as best actor and Horton Foote winning for best screen adaptation. Mr. Peters received high critical praise and won the All-American Press Association Award as best supporting actor.

By the mid-60's, Mr. Peters was recognized as one of the most versatile and talented black actors in America.

Mr. Peters was born Brock Fisher in New York City in 1927, the son of Sonny and Alma A. Fisher. He made his stage debut at 15 in the 1943 Broadway production of "Porgy and Bess" in a minor role, as Jim, one of the denizens of Catfish Row. After attending the University of Chicago (1944-45) and City College of New York (1945-47), he continued training for the stage in New York while working as a Y.M.C.A. and Parks Department instructor, hospital orderly and shipping clerk. He also honed his resonant bass singing voice as a member of the de Paur Infantry Chorus and toured clubs in the United States and Canada with a cabaret act.

In 1953 he made his first television appearance as a singer on "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts." In 1961 he married Delores Daniels, a television producer and public relations consultant, with whom he later started Delbro Enterprises, an independent production company that produced the feature-length comedy "Five on the Black Hand Side" (1973) and the PBS documentary "This Far by Faith" (1975).

Throughout his career Mr. Peters worked behind the scenes for the rights of actors in general and black actors in particular, and both he and his wife were also involved in community affairs. Mr. Peters served as the chairman of the California State Arts Commission and, along with Cecily Tyson and Arthur Mitchell, was a founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem.

Mrs. Peters, known as DiDi, died in 1990. Besides his companion, Ms. Darby, Mr. Peters's survivors include his daughter, Lisa Jo Peters.

His success in "Mockingbird" was followed by a minor role in the British comedy "Heavens Above!" (1963), which starred Peter Sellers. In 1965 he received rave reviews for his role as the ghetto hood Rodriguez, Rod Steiger's bitter antagonist in Sidney Lumet's film "The Pawnbroker." In the 60's and 70's Mr. Peters had supporting roles in more than a dozen feature films, including "The Incident" (1967), "Slaughter's Big Rip-Off" and "Soylent Green" (both 1973), and "Two-Minute Warning" (1976).

Onstage, he played the title role in a 1963 production of Shakespeare's "Othello," starred as the prize fighter Jack Jefferson in the touring company of "The Great White Hope" (1969-71) and appeared in the lead role of Stephen Kumalo in "Lost in the Stars," the musical adaptation of Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country," with a score by Kurt Weill. He was nominated for a Tony and won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for outstanding performance by an actor in a musical for "Lost in the Stars," and he reprised the role in the 1974 motion picture adaptation.

Mr. Peters remained a familiar presence on television, screen, stage and radio into the 1990's. His later credits include the television mini-series "Battlestar Galactica" and "Roots: The Next Generation" (both in 1979), the Emmy-nominated television musical "Polly!" (1989), as well as popular feature films like "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986) and "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).

He also appeared in the stage productions of "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989) and "My Children, My Africa" (1990). His voice-over work included the character Lucius Fox in "Batman: The Animated Series" (1992), and he was the sinister voice of Darth Vader in the NPR radio version of the "Star Wars" trilogy.

He was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1976, and he received a Life Achievement Award from the National Film Society in 1977. The Screen Actors Guild also honored him with an achievement award in 1990, citing his durability and versatility.


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