Percy Rodrigues

Actor and voice-over artist

Percy Rodrigues, actor: born Montreal, Quebec 13 June 1918; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Indio, California 6 September 2007.

Casting Percy Rodrigues as a neurosurgeon in the soap opera Peyton Place represented a landmark in American television, making him one of the first black actors to take the role of an authoritative, dignified professional figure.

It was 1968, a cataclysmic year memorable for the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, rioting across the United States and around the world, and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which signalled that American troops were not in control of the war there.

Amid all of this, a black family was introduced by the producer Paul Monash to America's first peak-time soap opera. Peyton Place was based on Grace Metalious's scandalous romantic novel about goings-on in a fictitious New Hampshire coastal town and was watched by up to 60 million Americans and many more viewers globally.

Rodrigues, a Canadian of African and Portuguese descent, took the role of Dr Harry Miles, with Ruby Dee as his wife Alma and Glynn Turman playing their teenage son Lew. It was a response to a call by Leonard Goldenson, president of the American television network ABC, for more "relevant" programming. It also followed a fall in ratings and the departure of Mia Farrow, who, as Allison MacKenzie, involved in a romantic triangle with the wealthy Rodney Harrington (Ryan O'Neal), had helped to keep viewers gripped.

Although some critics pointed out that the new Afro-American family were all beautifully dressed and well-educated, Rodrigues saw the significance in such turbulent times. "If I am to be regarded as a symbol, let it be for some good," he reflected. "I want to reach the children, to motivate them. If adults disagree, shame on them."

But audiences were not concerned with the "relevant", ratings continued to slide and Peyton Place was axed in 1969, after five years. Nevertheless, it was a step on the road to equality.

Percy Rodrigues, often incorrectly credited as Rodriguez, was born in Montreal in 1918. He started out as a professional boxer, then worked as a machinist and toolmaker, before switching to acting full-time, after gaining experience in the Negro Theater Guild in his home city and winning a Canadian Drama Festival award in 1939.

He made his Broadway début as Henry Simpson in the Lillian Hellman play Toys in the Attic alongside Jason Robards Jnr and Maureen Stapleton at the Hudson Theatre in 1960, and played the Rev Meridian Henry in James Baldwin's Blues for Mister Charlie at the ANTA Playhouse in 1964.

By then, he was landing small screen parts, following his début as an Iroquois chieftain in the Canadian television western series Radisson (broadcast in other countries as Tomahawk, 1957). He appeared in episodes of Naked City (1963) and Route 66 (1964), before one-off roles as a doctor in the medical series Ben Casey (1965), the commander of a Federation starbase who institutes a court-martial against Spock in Star Trek (1967) and a sheriff in The Fugitive (1967).

He played another doctor in the film The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968). After his role in Peyton Place (1968-69), he became ever more prolific as a character actor on television and was seen in the recurring role of Judge Harper in the sitcom Benson (1982-85).

In 1987, Rodrigues retired from acting to concentrate on voiceovers. His deep, authoritative voice had been in demand throughout his career. Many will remember him as the voice narrating the original 1975 Jaws film trailers and television commercials.

Anthony Hayward