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Earle Hyman, 91; played Bill Cosby’s father on ‘The Cosby Show’

Associated Press/File 1997

Mr. Hyman was best known for his role as Bill Cosby’s father on “The Cosby Show.”

By Robert D. McFadden New York Times 

NEW YORK — 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 Nov. 17 in Englewood, N.J.

Like many other 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.

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Most memorably, he played Russell Huxtable, the father of Dr. Cliff Huxtable, in 40 episodes of Cosby’s hugely popular NBC situation comedy about an upper-middle-class black family that was broadcast from 1984 to 1992.

Although he was only 11 years older than 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.

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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 such as 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.

Captivated by a production of Ibsen’s “Ghosts” that he saw in Brooklyn’s 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.”

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 he 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.”

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.