Percy Rodrigues, whose role as a neurosurgeon in the 1960s television series “Peyton Place” broke ground because he was cast as an authority figure when relatively few black actors were given such parts, has died. He was 89.
Rodrigues, who also had a long career as a voice actor, died of kidney failure Sept. 6 at his home in Indio, said his wife, Karen Cook-Rodrigues.
With a booming voice and a commanding presence, Rodrigues came to Hollywood in the 1960s from Broadway and “respectfully fought for these more dignified roles,” his wife said. “He was most proud of that.”
Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University, said, “Television didn’t have its equivalent of Jackie Robinson -- there wasn’t that one moment when the race barrier was broken. But Percy was one of a very small army of actors who were in a relatively quiet way beginning to get these roles that television was very reluctant in the 1960s to give to black actors.”
When Rodrigues was added to the “Peyton Place” cast in 1968, the headline in The Times said: “A Doctor’s Role for Negro Actor.”
“That headline is really telling,” Thompson said. “Back then that was big news.”
About the same time, Rodrigues played a commodore in a “Star Trek” TV episode -- “not just a helper on the bridge,” Thompson pointed out -- and an embittered doctor in the 1968 film “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”
The year 1968 was “a pivotal one for African Americans,” said Ron Simon, curator of radio and television at the Paley Center for Media in New York City. “There were a lot of complex stories about African Americans being seen.”
A story in The Times that year noted that at least 30 weekly series out of 72 would regularly feature black actors, singers or dancers. Diahann Carroll became the first black woman to star in her own comedy series, “Julia.” Bill Cosby was wrapping up his breakthrough role on “I Spy” and would soon launch “The Bill Cosby Show.”
And Rodrigues, a Canadian of African and Portuguese descent, was preparing to integrate the final season of “Peyton Place” as Dr. Harry Miles, with Ruby Dee portraying his wife.
“Why shouldn’t I play a neurosurgeon?” Rodrigues asked in a 1968 Times article. “Let’s start at the top. . . . I’m going to try to be a human being, as is my family, and if that doesn’t come across, then it’s our fault.”
The oldest of four children, he was born June 13, 1918, in Montreal. His father left the family when Rodrigues was young, and he started working as a teenager to help his mother.
By 18, he was a professional boxer and had been acting on and off since high school.
In Montreal, he joined the Negro Theater Guild, a troupe that was formed to help raise money for a church. Although he won a Canadian Drama Festival acting award in 1939, Rodrigues spent almost another decade working as a machinist and toolmaker before turning to acting full time.
On Broadway, he debuted in the Tony Award-winning play “Toys in the Attic” in 1960 with Jason Robards and Maureen Stapleton. When he appeared in another Broadway play, “Blues for Mister Charlie” in 1964, he was billed as Percy Rodriguez, a common misspelling of his last name that followed him throughout his career.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, he acted in more than 80 film and television productions. He was part of the large cast of the 1979 miniseries “Roots: The Next Generation” and was a regular on the short-lived early 1980s series “Sanford.” He also had a recurring role as a judge on TV’s “Benson” from 1982 to 1985.
Among his film credits are “Come Back, Charleston Blue” (1972) and Wes Craven’s “Deadly Blessing” (1981), which Rodrigues narrated.
Many people know his voice “even though they don’t know who he is,” his wife said.
He may be best known for his ominous narration of the movie trailers and radio and TV ads for the 1975 film “Jaws,” his family said.
In 1987, Rodrigues retired from acting to do voice-over work. He found it appealing because it gave him time to play golf, and “he didn’t have to show up at 5 o’clock in the morning for makeup,” said Cook-Rodrigues, whom he married in 2003.
In addition to his wife, Rodrigues is survived by his daughter Hollis and son Gerald of Canada, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His first wife, Alameda, who was the mother of his children, preceded him in death.