Friday, May 6, 2011

Here, Try a Little Taste of Peter...

Since the earliest days of my obsession with older movies and stars, I have felt drawn the most to motion pictures from Universal Studios, for reasons I can't even fully explain. However, since I started this blog, I find myself most often profiling actors from Warner Brothers. Go figure... It seems like every other time I land on someone I wish to profile, he or she was a Warners contract player. Such is the case today with a man who was introduced to the big time through none other than Jack Warner himself! The actor is Peter Brown.

Born with a moniker fairly guaranteed to earn some ribbing at school, Pierre Lind de Lappe was born in New York City on October 5th, 1935. His mother, Mina Reaume, was a radio personality, providing the voice of The Dragon Lady on Terry and the Pirates. Following in her footsteps, he took part in children's programming whenever a child's voice was needed (or a childlike sound, such as with elves and so on.) His father died when he was only four and, after his mother remarried, the family (which included an older brother and eventually two half-brothers) settled on the west coast in Spokane, Washington. He took his stepfather's last name of Brown and redubbed himself with the more American-sounding first name of Peter. He grew into a six-foot tall, lean young man with bright blue eyes and a unique, slightly upturned nose.
Brown joined the Army and was stationed in Alaska. USO shows were infrequent there, so he eventually formed a small troupe of performers who put on shows during the downtime. Following his release, he came back to UCLA and enrolled there in the drama department. He intended to pursue acting in New York, but was persuaded to try Los Angeles for a while, based on his youthful good looks. He made some stage appearances and was studying with acting coach Jeff Corey, but was working late nights at a filling station to make ends meet.

One night, a customer presented him with a credit card that read “Jack L. Warner.” Peter asked him, rather flippantly, if he was one of THE Warner Brothers and the man replied, “I'm the only one left.” After a continued conversation, Warner arranged for young Peter Brown to be given a screen test the very next day! The year was 1957. He was signed to a contract and swiftly placed in a low-budget “red scare” training film called Red Nightmare (also known by the more spastic title The Commies are Coming! The Commies are Coming!) The defense department film co-produced by Warner and Jack Webb contained a now-startling cast that included Jack Kelly, Jeanne Cooper, Peter Brown and Robert Conrad. Brown had a featured part that let him get his feet wet before the camera. (This film is listed on imdb.com as being released in 1962, but it was filmed in '57.)

Like all fellow contract players, he was kept busy, busy, busy, working on TV series (such as Colt .45, Sugarfoot and Maverick) and appearing in small, often uncredited, parts in movies like Darby's Rangers, Marjorie Morningstar and The Young Philadelphians. Brown's career received a major boost simply because a notice or two in the fan magazines led to heaps of mail requesting more of him. His cutie pie looks won him legions of female fans who couldn't get enough of his (mostly staged) dates, cookouts, swim parties, athletic efforts and so forth. The studio saw the hoopla over him and, understandably, wanted to glean all they could out of it.

In 1958, he married for the first time to blonde starlet Diane Jergens, who'd been working in Hollywood for several years. Their romance was played out in the movie magazines of the day, though the marriage was short-lived, ending in 1959. (She would marry the founder of The New Christy Minstrels in 1962, a union that has lasted to this day!)

Right around the time of his wedding to Diane, Brown made his debut as a television regular on the western series Lawman. The series' star was John Russell, a tall, lean, chiseled actor with a distinguishing streak of silver hair cutting across his otherwise dark locks. Russell's career dated back to 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but his primary work in films took place in the 1940s. He was almost a decade and a half older than Peter Brown, so his role of Marshal Dan Troop served as a father figure for upstart Deputy Johnny McKay.
It took a little while for Brown to come into his own on the series, at first being a little bit relegated to the sidelines, but in time he rose to enjoy more equal status and became a fan favorite of teens, especially girls. He perfected his quick draw through hours and hours of practice and honed his acting skills as the series churned out episode after episode. His face, along with Russell's, appeared on tie-in products including, notably, comic books of the day. Need I even point out the obvious appeal of his skintight trousers? (Sadly, I could find no larger version of the eye-opening shot below, thus there was no point in trying to put it in an area where it could be clicked on and enlarged further...)
The series, which ran for four years, was more than a little inspired by Gunsmoke, but didn't include that series more goofy type of characters like Chester and/or Festus. There was a female saloon owner, however, in Peggy Castle, added in season two. Brown met many other actors during his tenure on the show, including, as shown here, Sammy Davis Jr., who guest-starred one time. By the time the show was over in 1962, Brown was more experienced in his craft and poised to take part in other acting work.

He had a featured role in the war drama Merrill's Marauders, with Jeff Chandler and Ty Hardin, and was billed on the poster alongside them. Sadly, this was Chandler's final film as he would injure his back during it and eventually be killed from blood poisoning during an operation for that. Still a Warners contract player, Brown continued to be put to work on television series as well, like Hawaiian Eye, Cheyenne and 77 Sunset Strip.

By 1963, his contract was finished and he went to work for Walt Disney in their film Summer Magic. This was a remake of the old novel and film Mother Carey's Chickens about a widow with three children who moves into an old farmhouse and whose children find love that summer. Initially meant to be a vehicle for Annette Funicello, Hayley Mills wound up as the star and Brown played her love interest. Dorothy McGuire played Mills' mother while Burl Ives also starred as the local postman who helps the family fix up the home. A musicalized version of the story, it is among the lesser-known Disney live-action films of its period, though Mills did land a Golden Globe nomination for her role. The prettified treatment of the story meant that Brown was dressed snappily and filmed in flattering color.
He worked for the studio again the next year in the (now) even more obscure A Tiger Walks. This time Brian Keith was the Sheriff of a small town in which a circus tiger has escaped from its transport truck, causing all sorts of worry and mayhem. The townspeople want the beast killed on sight (and the National Guard is called in to do so) while Keith, his daughter Pamela Franklin and an East Indian trainer - played by Sabu! - want to save it. Brown had the rather inconsequential role of Keith's deputy and was seventh billed.

Brown's next two films were decidedly more challenging and/or provocative in nature and both have become minor cult hits as a result. First up was Ride the Wild Surf, a beach movie that was outside the usual realm of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello's comedic and zany hijinks. Not that it was Leo Tolstoy or anything, but it was an attempt to present an ever so slightly more serious surfing movie. (I just realized that the shot of Peter to the right is the same as on his postcard a bit below... Oops!)
It put Brown alongside Fabian Forte and Tab Hunter (and, in a shocking move, had Brown's hair bleached out to a lemon yellow shade, allegedly so that he would match up to the pre-filmed real-life surfer whose footage was used in long shots for his character.) Brown's lean physique was shown off in the many water-logged sequences (some of which had him against a projected background while the crew splashed bits of water on him!) His streamlined body was a contrast to the slightly cuddlier Fabian's and the more mature Tab's. There was something for everyone watching.
His other 1964 film was the outrageously campy and tawdry (for then) Kitten with a Whip. Ann-Margret (who dated Brown briefly when she first came to Hollywood) starred as a dangerous girl who terrorizes married businessman John Forsythe. Brown, clad in a newsboy cap, played one of her delinquent pals who helps make life hell for Forsythe. (Delinquents clearly dressed better then than they do now!) Brown and A-M would remain friends after their period of dating and, in fact, it was he who later introduced her to her husband Roger Smith. The couple remains married to this day.
In 1965, Brown landed another regular role on a TV series, it was yet another of the countless TV westerns of that time called Laredo. The other stars of Laredo were Neville Brand, William Smith and Philip Carey. He and the other men played Texas Rangers who were constantly in and out of various scrapes. Later, in season two, Robert Wolders was added to the cast and Brand departed, replaced by Claude Akins.

The show had a somewhat more comic bent to it than other westerns, though it was still heavily action-oriented. Brown's character tended to be a magnet for ladies on the show. He and heavily-muscled costar Smith (later to be immortal as the bad guy Falconetti on the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man) became good friends and would later work together several times on various projects.

When Laredo was cancelled in 1967, Brown worked in a couple of TV movies and was cast in the Israeli-made Attack at Dawn in 1970 with Combat! star Rick Jason. Brown played an American journalist helping some POWs escape from an Arab prison. He was a guest star on series such as The Mod Squad, Dan August, Mission: Impossible and even My Three Sons. Then he paired up with former Laredo costar William Smith for the drive-in biker flick Chrome and Hot Leather. The exploitation movie had an ex-Green Beret seeking revenge on some bikers (led by Smith) who have killed his fiancee (none other than Cheryl Ladd!) Brown was one of the soldier's friends who helped him to that end. At one point, the soldiers dress up in biker drag as part of their plan!

Next, he and Smith worked together again in the Venezuelan-made Piranha, whose title tells pretty much all. With things heading in such a direction, Brown turned to the medium of daytime drama, where he found a significant level of success for about two decades. First, he played Dr. Greg Peters on Days of Our Lives. That's him near the center of this Days cast photo to the right behind MacDonald Carey. He would stay on that soap from 1971 to 1979. Following that considerable stint, he then worked on The Young and the Restless from 1981 to 1982, returning from 1989 to 1991, Loving from 1983 to 1984, One Life to Life from 1986 to 1987 and finally The Bold and the Beautiful from 1991 to 1992, playing the ex husband of Hunter Tylo's character Taylor Hayes, Blake, who wants to wrangle her back. He found a double of her present husband's dead wife and brought her to town to make trouble. Ahhh, the soaps. Brown, who has worked in practically every acting medium, contends that the actors on daytime serials work harder than any others, thanks to the grueling five show per week schedule and the multitude of dialogue that has to be learned each day.
While he was working on the soap operas, he continued his career in prime time TV and in movies as well. He was a guest star on Police Story in the episode that introduced Angie Dickinson as the character who would ultimately become Police Woman. He was on many shows, though, from Marcus Welby, M.D. to Charlie's Angels to Vega$. His movies leaned towards the cheap, aggressively exploitive and drive-in level fare. In Foxy Brown, one of the more enduring Blaxploitation flicks, this one starring Pam Grier, he played a bad guy who winds up with quite a heinous fate in the end. He and Grier posed for several provocative publicity photos as part of the promotion of the movie. Other "gems" from this period include Act of Vengeance (a.k.a. - Rape Squad) in which he was a hockey mask-wearing rapist who forces his victims to sing Jingle Bells during the act! A band of ladies he has previously violated band together to thwart him.
He found time during all this to produce two films as well. There was Gentle Savage, starring his good buddy William Smith as an Indian accused of rape by outraged townspeople followed by Sparkle, the precursor to Dreamgirls about a singing group comprised of three black sisters who ride the wave of success and witness the resultant crash.

Playgirl magazine debuted in 1973 and a couple of imitators (Foxylady and Viva to name two) followed in its wake. Brown had fielded offers from these magazines to pose nude (as fellow actors Christopher George, Peter Lupus, Jim Brown and others had done), but was reluctant to pose for a full-on frontal spread. In discussing the scenario with his pal Hugh Hefner, it was arranged that Brown would do a light-hearted, frolicsome spread in Hefner's recent acquisition Oui magazine. Brown was shown on the beach and in the surf with a nude female model and had final say on which photos would be published. His own genitals were discreetly obscured, but he did show off a mighty cute little tan-lined butt. Incidentally, Brown was married five times in all and also had long term relationships, one that resulted in a son (he has another son from wife number two.)

All through the '80s, Brown continued to guest star on TV in series like Magnum, P.I., Hart to Hart, Riptide, Knight Rider and The A-Team. In the '90s, he was a guest on Baywatch, Wings, Babylon 5 and Jag. In more recent years, Brown has embraced the fan love that comes with being a former star of TV westerns. Countless conventions are held to honor stars of the genre and Brown has taken part in quite a few. He continued to act as well in television and in straight-to-video movies (an exception being a role in the popular release The Wedding Planner.) The last one he's done, to date, was 2005's Hell to Pay, a western that featured many fellow actors from popular genre shows including James Drury, Lee Majors, Andrew Prine, Buck Taylor and, fittingly, William Smith.
It may not be able to be said that Peter Brown had an extraordinary career, but it was one that lasted nearly fifty years and was surprisingly multifaceted. He ultimately emerged as one of those actors whose face was so familiar because it was seemingly everywhere on television in the '70s and '80s. Since marrying for that fifth time in 2008, he hasn't done as much acting as before, but then again he is seventy-five and may prefer to just live life quietly with occasional jaunts here and there. Even now, however, he retains a small, but loyal, fan base.

1 comment:

PBSholley said...

If one can find a copy of Oui, there is one shot revealing all.