The way Brock Peters recalled it, the competition for To Kill a Mockingbird came down to him and James Earl Jones. Peters won out. "I never actually knew who made the decision," he remembered, "but to whoever it was...I am ever grateful."
Peters, the character actor who made his mark as, and lent his booming voice to, the doomed Tom Robinson in the 1962 film version of Mockingbird, died Tuesday at his Los Angeles home following an eight-month battle with pancreatic cancer, the Associated Press reported. He was 78.
"We spent two weeks that I call two weeks of tears--my veil of tears," Peters said of the movie shoot before an audience in Kansas in 2000, per the site To Kill a Mockingbird & Harper Lee.
Tears didn't necessarily come easy to Peters the actor, nor did they come easily to his stoic character. They did, however, apply to Tom Robinson's plight: A wrongly accused black man faced with an all-white jury in the 1930s South.
Acclaimed by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest U.S. films of the last century, Mockingbird won three Oscars, including one for star Gregory Peck, who died in 2003. And it was Peters who read the eulogy at Peck's funeral. "In art there is compassion, in compassion there is humanity, with humanity there is generosity and love," Peters said. "Gregory Peck gave us these attributes in full measure."
Over the years, Peters was a regular on the Mockingbird circuit, as it were, appearing on stage with Mary Badham, who played young Scout in the movie, and, most recently, at a 2005 Los Angeles tribute to Harper Lee, upon whose novel the largely faithful film was based.
Breaking into the movies at the onset of the civil-rights movement, Peters had roles in two key black-led studio films of the 1950s, Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess. In 1996, he revisited the time with a supporting role in Ghosts of Mississippi, director Rob Reiner's account of the murder of civil-right leader Medgar Evars.
In the 1970s, as Hollywood became eager to exploit blaxploitation, Peters costarred in the Jim Brown revenge opus Slaughter's Big Rip Off, and that same year, produced Five on the Black Hand Side, a kinder, gentler alternative to the era's heavily armed entries.
Arguably, Peters found the steadiest screen work in the more enlightened future. A stalwart of the sci-fi genre, Peters played Commander Sisko's father in several episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and appeared as Starfleet Admiral Cartwright in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In 1981, he began work on the National Public Radio production of the original Star Wars trilogy. He was the voice of Darth Vader, the role old friend James Earl Jones originated in the movies. Other genre credits included 1973's Soylent Green and guest shots on the likes of Battlestar Galactica and The Bionic Woman.
Born George Fisher on July 2, 1927 in New York, Peters earned a Tony nomination for the 1973 Broadway musical revival of Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars. In 1991, he was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the Screen Actors Guild.
He is survived by his daughter, Lise Jo.