Phil Brown, the veteran actor best known for his brief role as Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen in the 1977 hit film “Star Wars,” died of pneumonia Thursday at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, said his wife, Ginny. He was 89.
Although he had worked in stage and film for more than 30 years, his availability to play Luke’s protective guardian came through some unusual circumstances.
Brown had been blacklisted during the McCarthy period and had moved to London with his family in the early 1950s to continue his acting career. A longtime progressive, Brown always denied being a Communist.
In London, he found work on stage and in such films as “Tropic of Cancer” (1970) and “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (1977).
In the mid-1970s, George Lucas was filming interior scenes for “Star Wars” at a London sound stage and needed an actor with a strong American accent.
After getting the role, Brown spent a month or so in Tunisia filming fewer than a handful of scenes.
As Luke’s uncle in “Star Wars,” he is trying to give the teenager a normal childhood and keep him from knowing he has Jedi roots. But Uncle Owen and his wife Beru meet an early end at the hands of imperial storm troopers.
It was, Brown later told the Baltimore Sun, “a very small part by comparison to the roles I had previously played. To be quite frank, I never gave it a thought again.”
The son of a doctor, Brown was born in Cambridge, Mass., graduated from Stanford University and was accepted in the Group Theatre in New York in 1938. His first job on Broadway was as a dancer in the play “Everywhere I Roam.”
According to a biographical sketch on his website, Brown was also interested in humanitarian causes and became involved in campaigns to send medical supplies to loyalist Spain and help in Russian relief efforts.
Despite its critical success, the Group Theatre folded in 1941, and Brown moved to Los Angeles to seek work in film.
Along with other former Group Theatre members, he formed the Actor’s Laboratory, which produced critically acclaimed works in Hollywood. At the theater, he directed plays by Arthur Miller, Nikolai Gogol and Arthur Laurent. In 1948, he moved to London and played opposite Helen Hayes in “The Glass Menagerie.”
Returning to Hollywood in 1949, he found work as a director and two years later finished his first feature film, “The Harlem Globetrotters,” starring Dorothy Dandridge and members of the famous basketball team.
But that promising start ended quickly with the Red scare and the government focus on some members of the Actor’s Lab. Brown and his wife left for London and stayed for 40 years.
When he returned to California in the early 1990s, Brown discovered that his small role in “Star Wars” had made him a celebrity. He became a popular figure at science fiction conventions.
He is survived by his wife of 65 years; a son, Kevin, of Hawaii; two grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.