Earle Hyman, a classically trained actor of steady grace, imposing presence and consummate skill, died Friday at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, NJ. He was 91. Hyman’s career on and off-Broadway spanned more than six decades and a multiplicity of Shakespearean roles at Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. But it was as Dr. Cliff Huxtable’s sympatico dad Russell on NBC’s The Cosby Show that Hyman reached his widest audience, earning him an Emmy nomination in 1986.
In addition to classic performances in roles ranging from the title characters in Othello and Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder, to the bombastic James Tyrone in Papp’s all African-American production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Hyman also had memorable performances in contemporary works. In the original 1980 Broadway production of Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque, a play that left the critics and audiences baffled, Hyman played a soft-spoken, karate-chopping enforcer and partner to Irene Worth’s canny Angel of Death. The role earned him his only Tony nomination.
He also had a role in Lincoln Center Theater’s 1987 premiere of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman.
Hyman was born in Rocky Mount, NC, to an African-American father and a Native American mother, who moved the family to Brooklyn, where he grew up. An early exposure to the plays of Ibsen aroused his interest in both the theater and Norway. A lifetime member of The Actors Studio, Hyman would perform in both the U.S. and Norway, where he made a second home.
Hyman came of age during a time marked by a new flourishing of African American writers and stars, including playwrights Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins and Ntozake Shange, and actors Gloria Foster, Mary Alice, James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman, among many others. At the same time, Hyman was an early and dedicated advocate of color-blind casting. “I am 65 years old and I am 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?” he once asked.
Among Hyman’s notable film and television performances were as Panthro in Thundercats and roles in television films of Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Macbeth. He also took roles in Norwegian series.
In his last New York stage appearance, in 2009, he played Ferapont in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, in a Gatehouse Theatre production presented by the Classical Theatre of Harlem.