Possessed of a formidable frame, luxuriant voice and commanding presence, it’s no wonder that Brock Peters (1927-2005), born 91 years ago today, is best known for his heartrending, unjustly accused trial defendant Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and his menacing murderer Crown in the film version of Porgy and Bess (1959). These two roles represent opposing extremes in the human soul, and Peters’ generous gift empowered him to capture simultaneously the seething anger underneath the saintly restraint as well as the enormous emotional need rooted inside the darker impulse. His resumé embraced criminals (1965’s The Pawnbroker), cops (1973’s Soylent Green), Starfleet commanders (two Star Trek movies), a conflicted man of God (stage and screen productions of the musical drama Lost in the Stars) and acclaimed touring productions of The Great White Hope and Driving Miss Daisy, all rendered with clarity and complexity.
Twilight Time offers a couple of other Peters principal performances – both as a part of outstanding American and British acting ensembles dealing in adult-oriented situations – that showcase his range and power in front of the camera. Working under the direction of actor/screenwriter Bryan Forbes, Peters played – with an authentically persuasive West Indies accent – a jazz combo trombonist living in shabby London digs in the Notting Hill neighborhood, next door to secretly pregnant unmarried Frenchwoman Leslie Caron as Jane, the newly arrived resident renter of The L-Shaped Room (1962, adapted for the screen and directed by Bryan Forbes). Seasoned in catching bed bugs Peters’ politely gregarious Johnny has already forged a friendly bond with another of the seen-better-days boarding house’s tenants, the struggling writer Toby (Tom Bell). After Jane and Toby fall in love, the warm camaraderie of these three disparate nonconformists shambles forward amiably, until Johnny discerns Jane’s expectant condition (the building walls being paper-thin) and spills the beans, lashing out protectively but jealously, out of unrequited romantic feelings for Toby. Compared to the relatively restrained, matter-of-fact events depicted in this slice-of-life character study, the nocturnal urban jungle milieu of director Larry Peerce’s unnerving thriller The Incident (1967) is relentlessly buzzing and explosively volatile. Within this tale of subway riders terrorized by unhinged young toughs Artie and Joe (played fabulously by Martin Sheen and Tony Musante), Peters plays short-fused, anti-white racist Arnold Robinson, a walking wound who, when he and his more sensible wife Joan (Ruby Dee) board the train, is initially gleeful at the prospect of everyone around him being plunged into fear by the two psychos. Until, of course, manipulative sleazeball Joe focuses his menacing wrath on the railcar’s sole African-American couple, building to a crushingly painful moment of truth. When interviewed last year at a 50th-anniversary screening, Peerce said that pre-shoot rehearsal-period improvisations between Musante and Peters rose to an electrifying pitch, and helped galvanize the entire ensemble. You’ll feel that energizing effect when watching Peters at work in the splendidly rendered black-and-white TT hi-def Blu-rays of The L-Shaped Room and The Incident.