Percy Rodrigues was a Canadian-born actor whose role in the popular prime-time soap opera Peyton Place caused somewhat of a stir in 1968. Cast as a neurosurgeon in the top-rated ABC drama, his debut as Dr. Harry Miles was so newsworthy that the Los Angeles Times ran a story on it that bore the headline: "A Doctor's Role for Negro Actor." Rodrigues also appeared in films and on Broadway during his long career, but his most enduring work may have been the voice-over narration he did for dozens of movie trailers. It was his baritone that set the ominous tone for the hit 1975 shark thriller Jaws.
Rodrigues's birth date was reported as 1924 for much of his career, but this was corrected by his survivors when they released word of his passing in 2007. He was actually born in 1918 as the first of four children in a family of mixed African-Portuguese heritage in Montreal, Canada, and grew up in the city's St.-Henri neighborhood. When his parents' marriage ended, he left school in his teens to work full time to support the family. He had some early success as a professional boxer, but he moved on to acting by the late 1930s. As a member of the Negro Theater Guild of Montreal, he won an acting award at the Canadian Drama Festival of 1939.
Made Broadway Debut
Roles for black actors were scarce in Canada during the 1940s and 1950s, so Rodrigues worked for a number of years as a machinist and toolmaker. In 1957 he made his television debut as an Iroquois chief on Radisson, a Canadian Western series that aired in both Britain and in the United States under the title Tomahawk. When it was canceled, Rodrigues moved to New York City and found work on the stage. He made his Broadway debut in 1960 as part of the original cast of Toys in the Attic, the Lillian Hellman play that was nominated for several Tony Awards that season, including Best Play. The storyline featured Jason Robards as a scam artist who returns to his New Orleans family home with his new wife; his wealthy mother-in-law soon arrives with her black chauffeur, played by Rodrigues, with whom she is having an affair. Hellman reportedly based the story on her own eccentric aunt's relationship with a household employee in the New Orleans of her youth.
Four years later Rodrigues appeared in the James Baldwin play Blues for Mister Charlie. He played the Reverend Meridian Henry, a small-town southern pastor whose son is slain during the turmoil of the civil rights movement. Reverend Henry's eulogy for his son is the most moving scene in "a play with fires of fury in its belly, tears of anguish in its eyes and a roar of protest in its throat" wrote the New York Times's Howard Taubman. The critic further asserted that the actor "reads this speech with consuming intensity. For it is not a lamentation but the wrath of the prophet."
Rodrigues began to pick up guest roles in hit television series such as Mission: Impossible after he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s. In 1967 he was cast as the commander of a star base who court-martials Captain Kirk in an episode of Star Trek, and a year later he began appearing in the fourth and final season of the popular television drama Peyton Place on ABC. A less campy Desperate Housewives of its era, Peyton Place was set in a quaint New Hampshire town and it storylines revolved around the rather shocking misdeeds of its seemingly upright citizens. Rodrigues came on board as Dr. Harry Miles, a neurosurgeon who joins the staff of the town hospital. His wife was played by Ruby Dee, and Glynn Turman was cast as their teen-aged son.
Scoffed by Critics
The inclusion of an African-American family in the top-rated drama was viewed as a pivotal step forward for blacks on television, but there were some complaints that if the medium wanted to show a more realistic, multicultural view of American life, developing a minority character who was also a brain surgeon was perhaps somewhat unrealistic given the fact that the number of African-American medical specialists was not very high in the late 1960s. According to Robert E. Dallos of the New York Times, a review from Variety, the entertainment-business trade newspaper, called it a "neat sidestep" for the network and television in general. The Variety critic noted that Rodrigues "has the facial structure that makes him look like a white man in blackface…. The result is that ABC has injected a Negro into the cast of ‘Peyton Place’ without integrating the show. White viewers can identify with any number of the different levels of white society portrayed on the show, but the Negro watchers are going to find it hard."
Rodrigues was perplexed by the reaction to his role on Peyton Place, which ended when the series did in 1969. He had sought only to portray "a human being, as is my family, and if that doesn't come across, then it's our fault," Los Angeles Times journalist Valerie J. Nelson quoted him as saying, and he also wondered "why shouldn't I play a neurosurgeon? Let's start at the top." Other film and television roles for him included The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1968, in which he played the father of Cicely Tyson's character, and episodes of Ironside, Cannon, Mannix, and Good Times. He also appeared as a guest star on The Jeffersons, a breakthrough sitcom that showed how far television had come in just eight short years—by 1975 the story of George and Louise Jefferson's move from Queens to a Manhattan high-rise apartment building with a doorman failed to attract the same kind of skeptical press that Rodrigues's portrayal of a Peyton Place doctor had engendered.
In his later years, Rodrigues began to take on more of the voice-over work he had occasionally done throughout his career. The most memorable intonations of his sonorous and commanding voice came in the 1975 Steven Spielberg movie Jaws. In the preview trailer for the terrifying summer blockbuster, Rodrigues's voice asserted: "There is a creature alive today who has survived millions of years of evolution…. It lives to kill—a mindless, eating machine…. It was as if God created the Devil, and gave him [pause] jaws." At that moment in the trailer, a female swimmer was attacked.
Other credits for Rodrigues include Roots: The Next Generations, the 1979 miniseries based on Alex Haley's groundbreaking book, and alongside actor Robert Guillaume in the ABC sitcom Benson. His final screen appearance came in The Shark Is Still Working, a 2006 documentary film about Jaws and its legacy in American popular culture and filmmaking. He died of kidney failure on September 6, 2007, at the age of eighty-nine in Indio, California. Survivors included his second wife, Karen Cook, and two children from his first marriage. Nelson asked Robert J. Thompson, an academic specializing in television and pop culture, about Rodrigues's career. Thompson noted that "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."
At a Glance …
Born Percy Rodrigues on June 13, 1918, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; died of kidney failure, September 6, 2007, in Indio, CA; married Alameda (died); married Karen Cook, 2003; children: (with Alameda) Hollis and Gerald.
Career: Worked as a professional boxer, machinist, and toolmaker in Montreal; actor, late 1930s-2007.
Awards: Canadian Drama Festival acting award, 1939.
The Plainsman, 1966.
The Sweet Ride, 1968.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1968.
The Forgotten Man, 1971.
Come Back, Charleston Blue, 1972.
Deadly Blessing, 1981.
The Shark Is Still Working, 2006.
Carol for Another Christmas (movie), 1964.
Peyton Place, 1968-69.
The Old Man Who Cried Wolf (movie), 1970.
The Sixth Sense, 1972.
The Last Survivors (movie), 1975.
The Lives of Jenny Dolan (movie), 1975.
Executive Suite, 1976.
Ring of Passion (movie), 1978.
Roots: The Next Generations (miniseries), 1979.
Angel Dusted (movie), 1981.
The Atlanta Child Murders (miniseries), 1985.
Independent (London), September 18, 2007, p. 34.
Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2007.
New York Times, April 24, 1964, p. 24; September 1, 1968, p, D13.
Times (London), October 3, 2007, p. 55.
Variety, September 14, 2007.
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