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Brock Peters, 78; Stage, Screen, TV Actor Noted for Role in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

August 24, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Brock Peters, the actor best remembered for his touching portrayal of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman in the Oscar-winning film "To Kill a Mockingbird," died Tuesday. He was 78.

Peters died at his Los Angeles home of pancreatic cancer, said Miles Kreuger, president of the Los Angeles-based Institute of the American Musical. Peters had been diagnosed with cancer in January.

The actor, known for his rich, deep voice, began his 60-year career as a teenager on Broadway in a 1943 revival of the musical "Porgy and Bess" and moved easily among live theater, motion pictures and television.

"He was a fine and powerful singer and actor," Kreuger said. "But more than that, he was a majestic human being."

Peters achieved his greatest fame with the indelible 1962 "Mockingbird," a racial morality play about a black man defended by a white lawyer, Atticus Finch, portrayed by the late Gregory Peck. Academy Awards went to Peck for best actor and Horton Foote for his screenplay adaptation of Harper Lee's novel.

"It certainly is one of my proudest achievements in life, one of the happiest participations in film or theater I have experienced," Peters told the Long Beach Press-Telegram in 2003, before a discussion of the film at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.

As the dignified Tom Robinson, Peters moved audiences with his courtroom testimony. When Peck's lawyer character asked whether he had committed rape, Peters' Robinson answered strongly, but with tears in his eyes, "I did not, sir!"

The two actors formed a long-lasting friendship. Peters said that Peck, who died in 2003, phoned him before filming began to welcome him to the production and that he was so surprised he dropped the phone. He said no fellow actor had done that before or since.

Peters occasionally attended the Gregory Peck Reading Series at the Los Angeles Public Library and was present in May when the library honored reclusive author Lee.

He also befriended actress Mary Badham, who played Peck's young daughter, Scout, in the film. Peters "was such a dear friend and one of the most lovely human beings I knew in my life," Badham told Associated Press on Tuesday.

The versatile Peters had a special following among "Star Trek" fans for his turns as Admiral Cartwright in the motion pictures "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" in 1986 and "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" in 1991.

He also appeared on television in many episodes of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" as Joseph Sisko, father of Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks.

Among Peters' other films were his star turn as the villain Crown in Otto Preminger's "Porgy and Bess" in 1959, "The Pawnbroker" in 1965, "Soylent Green" in 1973 and "Ghosts of Mississippi" in 1996.

Television appearances included the 1979 ABC miniseries "Roots: The Next Generations," the 1982 PBS special "Voices of Our People," for which he received an Emmy Award, and the 2002 Hallmark Hall of Fame "The Locket," as well as episodes of such series as "Gunsmoke," "Magnum, P.I." and "Murder, She Wrote."

Peters found great success starring as the South African minister in the stage and film versions of the musical "Lost in the Stars" in the early 1970s. His Broadway performance earned him a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award and a Tony Award nomination.

Throughout his career, Peters returned frequently to the stage, portraying the driver opposite Julie Harris in "Driving Miss Daisy" at Los Angeles' Henry Fonda Theatre in 1989 and South African teacher Mr. M in Athol Fugard's apartheid drama "My Children! My Africa!" a year later at the same venue.

"It's a splendid role for Peters, a geyser of an actor who never errs on the side of restraint," commented a Times reviewer on the Fugard play.

Born George Fisher on July 2, 1927, in New York City's Harlem, Peters decided on an acting career as a child. He attended the Music and Arts High School in New York City and later studied at the University of Chicago and City College of New York. Years later, he became a co-founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

In the late 1940s, Peters toured as a bass soloist with the DePaur Infantry Chorus. His commanding voice would, over the years, earn him roles on animated TV shows, including "Johnny Bravo," and on radio, as Darth Vader in "Star Wars." He also was a backup singer on Harry Belafonte recordings.

Peters first appeared on television in 1953 on "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts." A year later, he made his film debut in the Preminger musical "Carmen Jones," starring Dorothy Dandridge and Belafonte. Peters produced the 1973 film "Five on the Black Hand Side."

He earned lifetime achievement awards in 1976 from the National Film Society and in 1990 from the Screen Actors Guild, which also honored him for human endeavors.

When he got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1992, he likewise was commended for humanitarian contributions as well as his work.

Peters received the NAACP Image Award and in 1976 was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. He became a role model for young black entertainers and frequently was invited to address seminars on minorities in the entertainment industry.

A widower, Peters is survived by his longtime companion, Marilyn Darby, and a daughter, Lise Jo Peters.

A public memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at St. John's Episcopal Church, 514 W. Adams St., Los Angeles.

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