Born: August 23, 1945, Leeds, England.
Died: April 4, 1999, London, England.
Some actors play one role so well it's almost unimportant what else they did in their career; it can be a surprise to learn they even tried to do anything else. Bob Peck appeared in films as diverse as Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997) and Jurassic Park (1993, playing game warden Robert Muldoon). Despite that, he will always be identified with the role of grief-stricken police detective Ronald Craven in Troy Kennedy Martin's British TV drama Edge of Darkness (1985).
Since television was invented, there have been a million lone cops tracking down the killers of loved ones, but nobody has played the role quite like Peck. As Edge of Darkness begins, Peck is a single parent father, a widower with a 21 year old daughter; he is an intelligent Yorkshire CID officer investigating corruption in a mining union, and sensitive to political realities both in his workplace and in the country at large. But following the death of his daughter, his character Ronnie Craven is thrown into a journey of grief, revelation, and near-breakdown, confronting both the ugly side of nuclear power and a growing environmentalist movement. Whether in stand-out moments, like the controversial scene where he kisses his dead daughter's vibrator, or the many everyday moments where he stands and waits for approaching doom, he is always enthralling to watch no matter how little he does. Even merely looking, the intensity and fixedness of his gaze is extraordinary. Watching and understanding are his main roles; Peck is an eerily passive presence throughout, constantly ordered to mysterious rendezvous and driven back and forth across London in a wide range of vehicles.
The character written by Kennedy Martin is highly unusual: a policeman whose interrogation technique owes less to violence and shouting and more to holding hands and talking in a soft voice. Peck's great honesty and quiet depth let him do very strange things, like talking to his dead daughter and having her answer, without any disbelief from the viewer. And his explosions of rage, when it seems he'd rather die knowing the truth about his daughter than live without it, are equally powerful. Edge of Darkness was one of the best and most highly-praised TV dramas of the 1980s, and while there are many great things about it, from Joe Don Baker's loud Texan CIA agent to Eric Clapton's score, Peck is second to none. He justly won the BAFTA for Best Actor, thanks to a role whose combination of very human bravery, gentleness, commitment, loss and despair he seemed born to play.
Bob Peck was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, UK, in 1945, to working-class parents, and attended Leeds Modern School, which was also Alan Bennett's alma mater. He acted in school plays, but after leaving went on to art college rather than drama school. His acting talents were onlyrediscovered in a chance encounter with Alan Ayckbourn, who offered him a part in his summer season in Scarborough.
Peck was in his forties by the time Edge of Darkness made him famous, but he had been giving highly-acclaimed performances for a long time. He worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company for 9 years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There he played Malvolio in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night, Caliban in Ron Daniels's The Tempest, the title role in Edward Bond's Lear (a reworking of Shakespeare's play), and Sir Mulberry Hawk and John Browdie in Nicholas Nickleby. At the time he had a reputation for being difficult and stubborn, but was also highly praised for his acting talents.
His earliest TV roles were generally based on this RSC work, as Macduff in Macbeth (1979), and in the TV Nicholas Nickleby (1982), but also a sizeable role in 1984 TV thriller Bird of Prey 2. Following Edge of Darkness, he began a more significant film and television career. His biggest cinema role was starring in Harry Hook's The Kitchen Toto (1987), a story of Kenya at the end of imperial rule; he had another film role that year in Andrew Grieve's On The Black Hill, based on Bruce Chatwin's novel. He also appeared in Simon Gray's popular television serial After Pilkington (1987). In 1989 he reinforced the quietly heroic image he had gained with Ron Craven as the everyman hero in Mick Ford's small-screen drama One Way Out; Peck played a divorced father whose children lived with their mother, and his character found himself forced to protect his kids from his ex-wife's disturbed new boyfriend.
He was a curiously down-to-earth, almost deadpan, Dante Alighieri in Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips's A TV Dante, an adaptation of the early cantos of the Inferno, in 1989. In Jurassic Park (1993), he made a rather one-dimensional villain, his dour stoicism transformed into stupidity. He was to return to better things in 1995, back with Dickens, playing Gradgrind in writer-director Peter Barnes's gritty BBC adaptation of Hard Times. The following year he played Shylock for Channel 4. His last major film role was 1997's FairyTale: A True Story.
At the same time as these acting roles, he was putting his flat Yorkshire tones to good use as the narrator of many science and nature programs for British television, as well as recording audio books by authors such as Frederick Forsyth, Hammond Innes and Minette Walters. He even provided the voice of Beethoven for Naxos's Life & Works series of audio recordings. At the end of his career, suffering from cancer, he found work in animation, including The Adventures of Indiana Jones: Masks of Evil (1999) and The Miracle Maker (2000).
Aged just 53, Peck died of cancer on April 4, 1999. Theatre director Trevor Nunn said shortly after his death:
I once saw Ian McKellen watching Bob from the wings at Stratford; he turned to me and whispered: 'He is the future.' Bob challenged everything in rehearsal in his refusal to allow any moment to pass uninvestigated. His stubbornness became legendary. But so did his courage, his honesty and his loyalty.1
Peck's early death was a cruel loss to British acting. There is little doubt that he would have given great performances into his 60s or 70s, his quiet heroism ideal for roles such as King Lear
. Few other actors have shown such an intelligent, questioning, and gentle approach to their art, always ready to expose themselves and never giving a false note so it hardly even looks as if they are acting.
Trevor Nunn. Addition to the Guardian's obituary of Peck: Lyn Gardner,
"Edge of honesty on the stage", The Guardian, April 8, 1999, http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,3604,307762,00.html
BBCi. "Edge of Darkness". BBCi website. http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/ilove/tv/edge/intro.shtml (accessed January 26, 2004).
Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/ (accessed January 26, 2004).
Magnox: the Secrets of Edge of Darkness. 2003. (Documentary on Edge of Darkness DVD. BBC Worldwide Publishing. 2003.)
Lyn Gardner. "Edge of honesty on the stage". The Guardian. April 8, 1999. http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,3604,307762,00.html (accessed January 26, 2004).
Thanks to Ashley Pomeroy for telling me about Peck's talent for narrating science and nature documentaries, commenting "he could have read the phone book and made it sound interesting."