Longtime character actor Peter Breck, best known for playing Victoria Barkley’s (Barbara Stanwyck) middle son Nick on The Big Valley, died Monday.
His death was announced Thursday morning by his wife Diane on The Big Valley Writing Desk, a site for fans of the TV Western, which ran from 1965 to 1969. In 2010, she announced on his official Web site that the actor had been suffering from dementia.
“My darling husband… (had been in hospital since January 10,” she said in an e-mail, which was posted to the site. “I never dreamed that he would not be coming back home. However he fought his illness for so many years — he tried so hard.”
In late 1980s, Breck and his wife moved to Vancouver, where he operated an acting school — The Breck Academy — for a decade. Later, they retired to Parksville, British Columbia.
Born Joseph Peter Breck in Haverhill, Massachusetts on March 13, 1929, he became famous for his recurring portrayal of Doc Holiday on TV’s Maverick (1957).
His father, Joseph “Jobie” Breck, was a jazz musician who played with all the greats of that era, including Fats Waller, Bix Biederbeck, Paul Whiteman and Billie Holiday. Because his parents were on the road often, he lived with his grandparents in Haverhill in his earlier years.
Upon leaving John Marshall High School, Breck went into the United States Navy and became a first class petty officer on the USS Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier, working as a baker.
After his Navy discharge, he returned to Rochester and studied English and drama at the University of Houston in Texas. His first theatre was the Attic Theatre, which was part of the school’s drama department. When he had free time, he also started to sing at different clubs around Houston.
Breck went to the Washington Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where he was playing Napoleon’s adjutant in George Bernard Shaw’s Man of Destiny. Actor Robert Mitchum went backstage and asked him, “Do you wanna make a movie?” That movie was Thunder Road, which marked Breck’s screen debut. The low-budget film The Beatniks and the major movie I Want To Live followed.
After Breck did several more films, former actor Dick Powell, the head of production company Four Star, Inc., offered him the lead in a new series, Lawgun, which went on the air as Black Saddle. He played Clay Culhane alongside Anna-Lisa and Russell Johnson (later of Gilligan’s Island fame).
Other actors performing alongside Breck in The Big Valley included future stars Linda Evans (Dynasty) and Lee Majors (The Six Million Dollar Man).
In the 1970s, he returned to his “first love,” acting and directing in theatre. He appeared all over the United States and Canada in many plays, such as The Rainmaker, Mr. Roberts, Accommodations and A Thousand Clowns.
In later years, Breck wrote a column for Wildest Westerns magazine and recorded a CD of original tunes, Just Kickin’ Back.
Peter Breck is predeceased by his son Christopher and half-brother Georgie. He is survived by his wife, former dancer Diane Bourne, whom he married in 1960. He also had two half-sisters, Judith and Virginia.