Brock Peters

Actor best known for 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

The versatile actor, singer and producer Brock Peters will be best remembered for his touching portrayal of the gentle janitor Tom Robinson accused of raping a white woman and defended by the liberal lawyer Atticus Finch in the 1962 film of To Kill a Mockingbird.

In contrast, he was a powerfully menacing Sergeant Brown in Carmen Jones, a brutal rapist in Porgy and Bess and a villainous pimp in The Pawnbroker, but showed a felicitous comic touch in Heavens Above! and appealing sensitivity in The L-Shaped Room. His Broadway career included the starring role in a revival of the musical Lost in the Stars, which showcased his richly resonant bass voice and won him a Tony nomination. More recently, he was Admiral Cartwright in two of the Star Trek feature films.

Born George Fisher in Harlem, New York, in 1927, he decided as a child to be an actor, and attended the Music and Arts High School in New York, taking Brock Peters as a stage name. He made his stage début at the age of 15 in a 1943 Broadway revival of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, playing Jim, one of the Catfish Row inhabitants. Afterwards, he continued training for the stage while working as a hospital orderly and shipping clerk.

He made his television début in 1953 as a winner on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts show, and the following year he was cast by the director Otto Preminger in the screen version of Carmen Jones, as the troublesome Sergeant. He also dubbed the singing voice of the actor Roy Glenn for " Whizzin' Away Along de Track". He initially had some difficulties with the tyrannical director. "One day he chewed me out in front of a lot of people," said Peters. "He said something about 'This New York actor. . .', some disparaging things. I lost my temper and I went for him." Later the two men became friends. "He was a charming social personality and very warm," said Peters, "and I was surprised to learn that he was a life member of the NAACP [the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]."

In 1959 Peters was in Preminger's screen version of Porgy and Bess. He played Crown, Bess's former lover who runs away after killing a man, re-encounters her during a picnic and forces himself on her after the glorious duet "What You Want Wid Bess?", sung by Peters and Adele Addison (who dubbed the vocals for Dorothy Dandridge).

Peters was to find his convincing portrayals of stark villainy a handicap to his career. "It was almost disastrous," he said. "Producers didn't want to see me. They had liked my performances but couldn't see me as anything but a heavy." He was able to break away from the stereotype in Bryan Forbes's British movie The L-Shaped Room (1962), set mainly in a run-down Notting Hill boarding house, where he was a gay jazz trumpeter whose best friend falls in love with a pregnant French girl (Leslie Caron).

He then played the withdrawn janitor accused of rape in the film version of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), winning the All American Press Association award as Best Supporting Actor. Peters recalled how the film's star, Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his performance, woke him up with a phone call on a Sunday morning before shooting started to welcome him to the production. "I worked over the years in many, many productions but no fellow actor had done that before or has done since." He recently described the film as "one of my proudest achievements in life, one of the happiest participations in film or theatre I have experienced".

After acting in Sam Peckinpah's offbeat western Major Dundee (1965), he played a ground-breaking role as a ghetto gangster in Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1965) - until that time, with the exception of all-black films, leading black roles were invariably sympathetic for fear of causing offence. Other films included The Incident (1967), Soylent Green (1973) and Two-Minute Warning (1976).

On stage he starred in Othello (1963), toured as the prize-fighter Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope (1969-71), and in 1973 he starred in a revival of Lost in the Stars, a musical version of the Alan Plater novel Cry, the Beloved Country. The following year he repeated the role in a disappointingly lifeless film adaptation.

Peters's television appearances included the mini-series Roots: the next generation (1979), Voices of Our People (1982), for which he received an Emmy Award, and many episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. On stage he starred with Julie Harris in Driving Miss Daisy (Los Angeles, 1989), and his role as a teacher in Athol Fugard's apartheid drama My Children! My Africa! (1990) was described by the Los Angeles Times as "a splendid role for Peters, a geyser of an actor who never errs on the side of restraint".

He won a new legion of fans as Admiral Cartwright in both Star Trek IV: the voyage home (1986) and Star Trek V1: the undiscovered country (1991), and on a radio version of Star Wars he provided the voice of Darth Vader. In 1976 he was inducted into the Black Film-makers Hall of Fame, and he received a Life Achievement Award from the National Film Society in 1977.

Tom Vallance

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