Phil Brown

Blacklisted actor exiled to London
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The Independent Online

Phil Brown, actor and director: born Cambridge, Massachusetts 30 April 1916; married (one son); died Woodland Hills, California 9 February 2006.

Like his fellow Americans Larry Adler, Sam Wanamaker and Joseph Losey, the actor-director Phil Brown was forced to move to London during the ignoble witch-hunt era. By the time he returned to his homeland, his brief role in the film Star Wars (1977) had made him a cult figure.

The son of a doctor, Brown was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and graduated from Stanford University. In 1938 he joined the socially conscious Group Theatre, appearing in such plays as William Saroyan's My Heart's in the Highlands (1939), Robert Ardrey's Thunder Rock (1939) and Clifford Odets's Night Music (1940). When the Group disbanded in 1941, Brown moved to Hollywood, where he and other ex-Group members helped form the Actors Lab Theatre, where screen actors could hone their theatre skills in study and in stage performances. Brown directed plays for the Lab, which, during the Second World War, sent its productions to army camps, service hospitals and naval bases in America and overseas.

After making his screen début in Paramount's I Wanted Wings (1941), he appeared in a dozen more Hollywood films; there were thrillers such as The Killers (1946) and Johnny O'Clock (1947), comedies such as The Impatient Years (1944), Over 21 (1945) and Without Reservations (1946) and such horror quickies as Weird Woman (1944) and Jungle Captive (1945). His best film roles were as a homicidal mental patient in Calling Dr Gillespie (1942) and as Jeanne Crain's dull, bespectacled farmer fiancé in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair (1945).

Although Brown was not a Communist, his contribution to Russian War Relief during the war and his involvement with the Group and the Actors Lab landed him on the blacklist. After moving with his family to London, where they lived on a houseboat, he acted at the Haymarket Theatre in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie (1948), in a production starring Helen Hayes and directed by John Gielgud.

Another American working in London was the film director Edward Dmytryk. One of the "Unfriendly Ten" who had recently been convicted of Contempt of Congress for their political beliefs, Dmytryk was preparing to direct Obsession (1949), a British film about a pathologically jealous doctor (Robert Newton) who imprisons his wife's young lover (Brown) in a London sub-basement with ultimate murder in mind. Brown worked again with Dmytryk that year as dialogue director on another British film, Give Us This Day.

Two years later, a now Friendly Dmytryk returned to Washington and recanted his political views, giving the House Un-American Activities Committee the names of 26 people, including six fellow members of the Unfriendly Ten. When asked to comment on informers for Victor S. Navasky's book Naming Names (1980), Brown said, "Can you castigate a man who must keep away from his familiar haunts for fear of running into friends whose lives he's wrecked?"

During his years based in Britain, Brown appeared in such films as The Green Scarf (1955), The Camp on Blood Island (1958), The Bedford Incident (1965), The Boy Cried Murder (1966), Tropic of Cancer (1970) and Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977).

"It was a very small part compared to roles I'd previously played," said Brown of his part as Luke Skywalker's kindly Uncle Owen Lars in the highest-grossing film in screen history. Yet, when he returned to America in the late 1990s, he found his Star Wars connection had made him much in demand at science-fiction conventions.

Dick Vosburgh