Some years ago, I was hanging out at a friend’s house. He wasn’t home, nor were either of his roommates. The boyfriend of one of his roommates was, though, and he was playing a video game called The Darkness. I watched him, because I didn’t have much else to do that day (obviously, this was before I had kids). At one point, in order to get an achievement, he was supposed to sit on the couch with the character’s girlfriend and watch TV for five minutes. As he was doing that, music started to play, and I sat up straight. “That’s the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird,” I said. “Huh,” he said. “I’ve never seen that. I wonder how much of it they coded into the game.” And it turned out to be all of it.
This is not most people’s first viewing experience of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s certainly not the best one. I suspect many people first saw it in high school, probably sophomore year, when they read the book. Certainly I did. On the other hand, I saw it in the class taught by the teacher who helped start me all those years ago on the long road that ended up with my writing this column today. Which means I may well have been better suited than many others to appreciate the acting ability of Brock Peters, who so many of us will always best know as Tom Robinson, the man falsely accused of rape.
While he did much more than that, this is another one of those “even if that were all he did, it would be a career” moments. It’s an amazing performance, one that could well be considered a career-capper in any career. The look on his face when he realizes he’s destroyed all his chances by saying he felt sorry for a white woman is an impressive bit of physical acting—the kind that is, to me, harder to do. Conveying emotion with just a change of expression is difficult, and he sells that moment in a way that not every actor could.
However, there was so much more to his career than one performance. Among other things, his first two movies were Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess, both worthy of mention and not often discussed these days. He was on Captain Planet once. He was once on the animated show Wildfire, one I’d almost come to believe I’d made up that aired for a single season in 1986. He was Lucius Fox on Batman: The Animated Series. He did an episode of The Pretender. Indeed, his TV career goes back to 1956. It’s a fairly interesting assortment of roles.
And, of course, there is a certain amusement to writing about someone who did two Star Trek roles on May the Fourth. But he was Admiral Cartwright in two Star Trek movies—in fact had to deliver language about as I recall the Klingons that he had a hard time getting through for the same reason Nichelle Nichols refused to deliver some of her own scripted dialogue. Then on Deep Space 9, he was Joseph Sisko for six episodes, father of Benjamin. Probably there are people out there who only know him from those roles. Which is not quite the same as only knowing Tom Robinson.