IN REMEMBRANCE: 11-19-2017


Earle Hyman before his induction into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1997. 

Credit Ron Frehm/Associated Press

Earle Hyman, who broke racial stereotypes on Broadway and in Scandinavia in works by Shakespeare and Ibsen but was better known to millions of Americans as Bill Cosby’s father on “The Cosby Show,” died on Friday in Englewood, N.J. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by Jordan Strohl, a representative for The Actors Fund.

Like many actors who love the stage, Mr. Hyman paid the bills with television work — soap operas and police dramas, “Hallmark Hall of Fame” and “The United States Steel Hour,” and made-for-TV movies. Most memorably, he played Russell Huxtable, the father of Dr. Cliff Huxtable, in 40 episodes of Mr. Cosby’s hugely popular NBC situation comedy about an upper-middle-class black family, broadcast from 1984 to 1992.

Although he was only 11 years older than Mr. Cosby, Mr. Hyman was an authoritative father figure, sometimes reciting Shakespeare at length — in scenes especially tailored to Mr. Hyman’s classical talents — when sage advice was required for his son.

But in a stage career that bridged oceans, languages and racial sensibilities, he also played the traditionally white roles of Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear in New York and London and the black roles of Othello, Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones and the chauffeur in Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. There he electrified audiences and critics performing in their native languages, albeit with an American accent.

He was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in New York in 1997.

Mr. Hyman appeared on and off Broadway in a score of productions over six decades, a lifetime of Beckett, O’Neill, Pinter, Albee and lesser lights as well as Shakespeare and Ibsen. And for nearly as long, he worked part of each year on the stages of Norway, where he had homes in Oslo and the fjord country, refuges from what he called the pressures, pleasures and racial barriers of New York.

“It used to be that casting black actors in traditionally white roles seemed daring, like marching in the street, and maybe things have gotten better and maybe they haven’t,” Mr. Hyman told The New York Times in 1991. “But just the fact that people still ask that question — should we or shouldn’t we? — proves that things have not come a long way.

“In Norway, where I have performed for three decades, I have played a Norwegian archbishop and no one has raised a question,” he added. “Here I am almost 65 years old and I’m still saying that all roles should be available to all actors of talent, regardless of race. Why should I be deprived of seeing a great black actress play Hedda Gabler?”

With young contemporaries like James Earl Jones, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Morgan Freeman, Mr. Hyman was a major influence in developing black theater in America. He appeared in black-cast productions on Broadway and in regional theaters and was a founder of the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., which began in 1955 and often cast black actors in customarily white leading roles.

Skirting racial barriers that had long limited the opportunities for black actors in America, Mr. Hyman lived and worked in England for five years and spent parts of each year in Scandinavia, mostly in Norway, for more than a half century. He became fluent in Norwegian and Danish, spoke passable Swedish, and performed in Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm in plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen and O’Neill.

After his debut at the National Theater in Bergen in “Othello” in 1963, Mr. Hyman, the first American to perform for Norwegians in their own language, was hailed by Norwegian critics, inundated with offers to stay on and besieged by fans from across a land of reserved people rarely given to emotional displays. After 50 consecutive sellouts, he was also drawing international attention.

“Even speaking Norwegian with an American accent has not diminished Mr. Hyman’s achievement for Norway’s critics and its theatrically sophisticated audiences,” a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor wrote. “Along with the eloquence, dignity and towering emotional force of his characterization, the clarity of Mr. Hyman’s diction has won him admiration.”

George Earle Hyman was born in Rocky Mount, N.C., on Oct. 11, 1926, one of four children of Zachariah and Maria Plummer Hyman, who were both teachers. The family moved to Brooklyn when he was a boy. He graduated with honors from Franklin K. Lane High School, where he studied French and Latin.

Captivated by a production of Ibsen’s “Ghosts” that he saw in Brighton Beach, he resolved to be an actor. He devoured plays by Ibsen and Shakespeare, memorized parts easily and at 16 performed on Broadway in “Run, Little Chillun.”

His first Broadway hit, in 1944, was “Anna Lucasta,” Philip Yordan’s play about a Polish family, turned into a story about blacks, with an American Negro Theater cast that also included Alice Childress, Hilda Simms and Canada Lee. It ran 957 performances and was one of Broadway’s longest-running nonmusical plays at the time. After it closed in 1946, Mr. Hyman toured with the company in America and Europe.

Finding little work on Broadway in the early ’50s, he moved to London and over several years performed 13 roles in 10 Shakespeare plays, including the lead in a televised “Hamlet.” He played Othello in 1957 with the American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, and that year visited Norway for the first time. He was enthralled by a nation with an almost colorblind perspective on race.

“The first time I stepped on that soil I fell in love with it,” Mr. Hyman told The Associated Press in 1988. “I felt I’d been there before.”

Mr. Hyman, who never married, lived at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood. He leaves no immediate survivors.

He appeared in a number of made-for-television films and movies, including “Macbeth” (1968), “Julius Caesar” (1979) and “Coriolanus” (1979). He also provided voices for numerous episodes of the 1980s animated TV series “ThunderCats.”

He was nominated for a Tony for his 1980 Broadway role in Edward Albee’s “The Lady From Dubuque,” and for an Emmy in 1986 for his “Cosby Show” work. He won a CableACE Award in 1983 for best actor in a drama for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”; an Outstanding Pioneer Award in 1980 from the Audience Development Committee, which recognized achievements by black theater artists; and the Medal of St. Olav from the King of Norway in 1988 for his work there.

SOURCE: The New York Times





Mel Tillis at his theater in Branson, Mo., in 1998. Credit Mel Tillis Theater

Mel Tillis, whose career as a country singer and the writer of enduring hit songs like “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” earned him a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame and a National Medal of Arts — but who was equally well known for the stutter he employed to humorous and self-deprecating effect onstage — died on Sunday in Ocala, Fla. He was 85.

Mr. Tillis “battled intestinal issues since early 2016 and never fully recovered,” his publicist, Don Murry Grubbs, said in a statement. The suspected cause of death was respiratory failure, he said.

Mr. Tillis found a way to turn his speech impediment into an asset by using his ready smile and innate comedic timing to get his audiences to laugh along with him. He stuttered his way to regular appearances on television talk shows and to clowning bit parts in Hollywood movies.

He even went so far as to make the nickname Stutterin’ Boy, conferred upon him by the singer Webb Pierce, the title of his autobiography (written with Walter Wager and published in 1984), and to have it painted on the side of his tour bus. He also named his personal airplane Stutter One and referred to his female backup singers as the Stutterettes.

Mr. Tillis stuttered only when he spoke, not when he sang. His resonant baritone was suited to both traditional country and pop-leaning material and was the vehicle for upward of 70 Top 40 country hits. His stutter might not have figured so prominently in his career had he focused exclusively on songwriting, or had the country entertainer Minnie Pearl, for whom he played rhythm guitar in the 1950s, not asked him to perform some of his songs in her show.

Mr. Tillis was named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association in 1976. 

Credit Associated Press

“She’d get me off to one side and say, ‘Melvin, you’re gonna at least have to announce your songs, and then thank the folks,’” Mr. Tillis said, recalling Pearl’s response to his hesitancy about speaking in public, in an interview published in the newsletter of the International Songwriters Association in 2002.

“I was so bashful and scared,” he went on, “and she said, ‘If they laugh they’ll be laughing with you, not against you.’ And I began to tell anecdotes that had happened to me, and people would laugh. And I began to like that, you know.”

Mel Tillis, Glen Campbell, & Minnie Pearl – The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (1972) – Auctioneer Video by Glen Campbell – A Tribute

Even so, he said of his speech impediment in a 1976 interview with People magazine, “One of my main objectives in life has been to whip this.”

Though at times eclipsed by his fondness for drollery, Mr. Tillis’s early artistic reputation rested on the decidedly sober material he wrote for honky-tonk singers like Mr. Pierce and Ray Price. “Detroit City,” a wistful ode to homesickness written with Danny Dill, became a Top 10 country and Top 20 pop hit for Bobby Bare in 1963.

Mr. Tillis also contributed hits to the Patsy Cline catalog, including “So Wrong,” composed with Mr. Dill and the rockabilly singer and guitarist Carl Perkins. “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” an anguished ballad sung from the perspective of a disabled Vietnam War veteran whose wife is cheating on him, was covered by numerous artists. The 1969 recording by Kenny Rogers and First Edition reached the pop Top 10 and the country Top 40.

Billed solo or with his band, the Statesiders, Mr. Tillis had six No. 1 country singles, including “Coca-Cola Cowboy,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the 1978 Clint Eastwood movie, “Every Which Way but Loose.” He placed a total of 35 singles in the country Top 10, 15 in a row from 1976 to 1981, before the hits stopped coming in the mid-1980s.

He was named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association in 1976. He was also inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame that year and elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007. He received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2012.

Lonnie Melvin Tillis was born on Aug. 8, 1932, in Tampa, Fla. His father, Lonnie Lee, worked as a baker and played harmonica and guitar. His mother, the former Burma Rogers, came from a musical family. Together with the rousing hymns of the Baptist church, Mr. Tillis’s parents instilled in him an early love of music.

Mr. Tillis served in the Air Force from 1951 to 1955. After that he briefly attended college in Florida and worked for a railroad and as a truck driver before moving to Nashville in 1957. There he landed a songwriting job with Cedarwood Publishing for $50 a week.

He signed a contract with Columbia Records in 1958 but did not enjoy success until five years later, and then only of the middling variety, when “How Come Your Dog Don’t Bite Nobody but Me,” a novelty number he sang with Mr. Pierce, reached the country Top 40.

Mr. Tillis went on to record for a number of labels and release some 60 albums, among them “Mel & Nancy” (1981), a collection of duets with the daughter of his friend Frank Sinatra. He also had minor roles in comedic action films like “Smokey and the Bandit II” (1980) and “The Cannonball Run” (1981) and appeared regularly on TV talk and variety shows including “The Tonight Show” and “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.”

A savvy entrepreneur, Mr. Tillis established a number of successful business ventures, including song publishing and film production companies, a music theater in Branson, Mo., and a 1,400-acre working farm, where he raised cattle, corn and tobacco, in Ashland City, Tenn., west of Nashville.

He is survived by his longtime partner, Kathy DeMonaco; his first wife and the mother of five of his children, Doris Tillis; a sister, Linda Crosby; a brother, Richard Tillis; six children: Pam Tillis, Connie Tillis, Cindy Shorey, Mel Tillis Jr. (known as Sonny), Carrie April Tillis and Hannah Puryear; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

His daughter Pam, a singer and songwriter, released a tribute album to him, “It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis,” in 2002.

Exploiting his speech impediment for laughs might not have been politically correct, but Mr. Tillis knew that living with a disability had its serious side.

“Stuttering brings out some very strange reactions,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It makes some folks feel nervous and uncomfortable, while others laugh because they find it funny. A lot of people think I’m putting it on. But I don’t worry about that because people who stutter know I stutter. And that’s what counts.

“Yes, I’ve made a lot of money talking this way. But I didn’t ask to be called the singer who stutters. Sometimes I feel the stutter is bigger than the song. I like to think that I have some God-given talent, too.”

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