A quietly magnetic character actor in television on both sides of the Atlantic, American actor Clarke Peters brought enormous dignity and intelligence to his best roles, which were anchored by his celebrated turn as Baltimore detective Lester Freamon on "The Wire" (HBO, 2002-07). Prior to the celebrated drama, Peters had been a familiar face on the English stage, where he lived since the early 1970s and where he conceived the book for the Tony-nominated musical "Five Guys Named Moe." After appearing as a pitiful drug addict in producer David Simon's HBO miniseries, "The Corner" (2000), he was cast as Freamon, an older but infinitely wiser detective whose slow but effective methods helped to bring down a powerful drug empire. The worldwide critical success of the series helped to mint Peters as a star, and he was soon cast as other strong, proud and intelligent men in episodes of "Damages" (FX, 2007-10; DirecTV, 2011-12) and Simon's follow-up to "The Wire," the multi-character drama "Treme" (HBO, 2010- ). Whether on stage or the small screen, Peters was a subtle but powerful and undeniably watchable presence.
Born Peter Clarke in Englewood, NJ in April 7, 1952, he was the son of a commercial artist who raised Peters and his three brothers in an environment steeped in the liberal arts and integration with a wide variety of ethnic groups. His first taste of acting came at the age of 12 in a local production of "My Fair Lady," and the experience set him on the path to pursue the craft as a career. His family was already deeply immersed in the arts - his older brother had relocated to Paris to work as a choreographer and a costume designer, while his father was deeply involved in the Greenwich Village jazz scene. Peters was also committed to the anti-war movement, and was briefly jailed during a demonstration. The experience convinced him to follow his brother to Europe, where he earned his professional debut as an actor in a Parisian production of "Hair," for which his brother was designing costumes. In 1973, he arrived in England, where he adopted his stage name after discovering a number of Peter Clarkes in the Equity listings, and spent the majority of his adult life in London.
Once ensconced in his new home, Peters concentrated largely on a career in music, first through a soul vocal group called The Majestics, who performed at the Royal Albert Hall with pop singer Shirley Bassey, and later as a backing vocalist on songs by David Essex, Joan Armatrading and Heatwave ("Boogie Nights"). But acting was never far from his thoughts, and after befriending acclaimed stage director Ned Sherrin, began landing stage roles in West End productions. Minor parts in British films, including the cult favorite "Silver Dream Racer" (1980), and television soon followed. By the mid-1980s, he was a familiar face on stage in productions of "Guys and Dolls" and "Driving Miss Daisy," among others, and had graduated to supporting turns in Neil Jordan's "Mona Lisa" (1986).
In 1990, Peters penned the book for "Five Guys Named Moe," a musical built around the saucy postwar R&B music of Louis Jordan. The idea was borne out of a troubled period in the actor's life: he was struggling to keep a relationship afloat while working on location far from his home. To console himself on the long drive to set, Peters would listen to Jordan's music, and conceived a musical about a down-and-out man whose troubles are soothed by five singers, all named Moe, who perform Jordan's best-known songs. "Moe" made its debut in London in 1990, where it won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment. Two years later, the show traveled to Broadway, where it earned a Tony nomination for Peters' book and a second nod for Best Musical.
The success of "Moe" led to more stage work for Peters, including turns in "The Iceman Cometh" opposite Kevin Spacey, which earned him a World Theatre Award, and runs in New York and London as the crooked lawyer Billy Flynn in "Chicago." He remained a familiar face on British television, and finally earned a breakout international hit with "Notting Hill" (1999) as the male lead in "Helix," the science fiction movie-within-a-movie featuring Julia Roberts' lovelorn superstar. The following year, Peters made his American television debut in "The Corner," a miniseries by former Baltimore Sun reporter-turned-writer and producer David Simon. In the Emmy-winning miniseries, Peters played Fat Curt, a heroin addict who fell from stylish young blade to a physically scarred wreck; his performance was impressive enough to lead to a long and successful working relationship between Peters and Simon and many of his collaborators.
The most significant of these projects was "The Wire," the critically acclaimed five-season saga of life on both sides of the law in the Baltimore drug trade. Peters played Lester Freamon, a meticulous police detective whose thoughtful, methodical approach to crime solving was frequently dismissed by his superior. Locked away in the Pawnshop division for an ages-old infraction, he was assigned to the wiretap detail in an almost dismissive gesture, but soon proved to be the unit's key player, cracking the phone codes used by drug kingpin Avon Barksdale's crew and eventually taking over the wiretap operation as it tracked down Barksdale's successor, the vicious Marlo Stansfield. Freamon also served as the unit's voice of reason, particularly in conversations between its commander, Cedric Daniels and its wild card, Detective Jimmy McNulty. The wiretap case proved to be Freamon's greatest triumph, as well as his final police effort; McNulty embroiled him in a plot to pin drug murders on a fictitious serial killer in order to drum up more support for their pursuit of Stansfield. The gambit worked, but at the cost of their careers, and Freamon was last seen pursuing his hobby, creating doll furniture, in retirement. Critics praised Peters for his performance, which became one of the hallmarks of the show's quality, and which helped to make Peters a star in his native country.
Producers queued up to hire members of "The Wire" cast in the hopes of their lending a degree of quality to their own projects, and Peters was soon in demand as a character actor in a wide variety of TV series and features. In the second season of "Damages," he played Dave Pell, a shadowy partner to energy company chief Walter Kendrick (fellow "Wire" vet John Dornan), whose company was charged with coercing a scientist (William Hurt) into stating that their hazardous chemical output was non-toxic. And on the British medical drama "Holby City" (BBC One, 1999- ), he was the estranged father of randy nurse Donna Jackson, whose terminal illness allowed her to establish some closure for her troubled childhood. Peters also reteamed with William Hurt for the thriller "Endgame" (2009), a British feature set in the final days of apartheid in South Africa, with Peters as Nelson Mandela.
In 2010, Peters returned to "Five Guys Named Moe," this time as star for the 2010 production in Edinburgh, Scotland. That same year, he began his third collaboration with David Simon in "Treme," a drama set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Peters played Albert Lambreaux, a proud Crescent City resident and Mardi Gras Indian chief who fought to continue the tradition of the Indian parades at Mardi Gras, despite the devastation that had scattered his tribesmen across the state. Peters' co-stars included "Wire" vet Wendell Pierce and his "Corner" leading lady, Khandi Alexander.