STAGE TO SCREENS: Stage and Screen Star Earle Hyman

By Michael Buckley
23 Oct 2005

Earle Hyman
Earle Hyman

This month we chat with Earle Hyman, best known for his role as Bill Cosby's father, Russell Huxtable, on "The Cosby Show" (1984-92), but also a distinguished stage actor both here and abroad whose credits date back over 60 years.

Having just turned 79 ("I can't believe it"), Hyman is in rehearsals for the Atlantic Theater Company's double bill of Harold Pinter plays, which pairs the Nobel Prize winner's most recent work, Celebration, with his first, The Room. Starting previews Nov. 16, the production opens Dec. 5.

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"I love words," says Hyman, "especially when they're [put together] by Pinter, Edward Albee and Shakespeare." He even got advice on how to play Hamlet from John Gielgud, back when Hyman took classes with Eva LeGallienne at the American Theatre Wing. "Sir John never really taught there. He'd talk to me and answer questions. He was incredibly generous. Miss LeGallienne and Sir John Gielgud were my mentors, my gods, my dear, dear friends.

"Once, I asked Miss LeGallienne, 'How was Sir John's Hamlet?' She told me, 'Dear boy, a bit too neurotic.' At a ceremony where Miss LeGallienne was receiving an award, I was sitting behind Sir John and heard him say, 'Such a cold actress.' But that's the way artists are. [Laughs]" Hyman later studied at the Actors Studio, where "Lee Strasberg helped me get through an acting block that lasted five years."



Born in Rocky Mount, NC, Hyman attended public schools in Brooklyn. He and school chum Anne Jackson were among eight finalists of over a thousand applicants for producer John Golden's "Golden Auditions" for young people. "Within six months, I had my first job on radio, then came Run, Little Chillun [his 1943 Broadway debut]. I had a tiny role. It was a musical by Hall Johnson and ran two weeks. Then I became a member of the American Negro Theatre," returning to Broadway, "when our black company replaced the white company in Three's a Family for one performance."

The American Negro Theatre's production of Anna Lucasta, in which Hyman played Rudolf, opposite Hilda Simms in the title role, proved so successful that it transferred to Broadway's Mansfield Theatre, where it ran over two years.

During the run, a call for film extras was posted backstage. A movie fan since childhood, Hyman signed up. "They wanted extras for the Harlem scene of 'The Lost Weekend' [which won the 1945 Oscar for Best Picture]. I was the only one in the cast who applied. Mister Wilder [director Billy Wilder] came over to me [at the location]. 'I saw you last night in Anna Lucasta. What are you doing here?' I said that I'd like to be an extra. He said, 'Oh, my God, we have to do something special with you.'

"He stood me up in front of a pawnshop. The camera, on a medium shot, went slowly not that slowly, if you bend down to tie your shoelace, you won't see me and there I am. I bought the DVD, and was sure that I'd been cut out. But there I am, in my 17-year-old glory. Forever!"

He accompanied Anna Lucasta for its West End engagement. "I had dreamed and hoped all my life: Get me to London, where Shakespeare is! The tryout was in Oxford we opened on my twenty-first birthday and then we went to London for two years. That was one of the most exciting moments of my life!"

Moss Hart wrote and directed the 1952 comedy The Climate of Eden, "which was wonderful," states Hyman, "but didn't run. Moss went to London to find, according to the script, 'the most beautiful girl in the world.' He brought back Rosemary Harris, who was divine! We all liked her, but didn't think she was 'the most beautiful girl.' Then, at the run-through, we watched from the wings, as she made her entrance and, having done nothing to her face, she was 'the most beautiful girl in the world.' She's heaven! One of the greatest living actresses!"

Next came Ira Levin's comedy, No Time for Sergeants, starring Andy Griffith. "When I decided to leave [his role as a lieutenant], Maurice Evans [who produced the play] told me, 'Actors don't leave hits, dear boy.' But it was [for] the role of a lifetime." As Mister Johnson, Hyman played a childlike clerk whose fascination with white civilization leads to tragedy. "I hoped it would run forever, but it only lasted six weeks. They wouldn't put my name in lights, not even small lights. [The marquee] read, 'Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis present Mister Johnson.' My name wasn't anywhere to be seen. That was a little strange. [Laughs]"

He was then offered a black production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, "and tried to get out of it. I saw the original, with Bert Lahr and E.G. Marshall, and didn't understand a word of it. I told my agent, 'Ask for a lot of money,' thinking I could get out of it that way. The producer, Michael Myerberg, wanted to do it with a different company each year. We were the black company, the second year, and he planned a female company, with Tallulah Bankhead and Nancy Walker, to follow."

But Hyman played Vladimir (Didi), opposite Mantan Moreland as Estragon (Gogo), and his opinion changed. "With Herbert Berghof's direction, I fell in love with the play. I do believe it's the greatest play of the twentieth century! I've done four different productions. The most recent was a regional production, in which Gogo was a Jew; Lucky, an American Indian; Pozzo, a WASP...."

Mention of Herbert Berghof prompts my comment that Hyman taught at the HB Studios. "[Teaching] is what they called it, but in my heart of hearts, I knew I was not the best of teachers. I did it over 30 years and learned a great deal from the students."

In 1959 Hyman starred in the London company of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. "It broke my heart that it wasn't a success." He's appeared in two productions of Shaw's Saint Joan, "one with Siobhan McKenna, one with Diana Sands. They both died too young." In Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs, he played Abioseh Matoseh, and understudied James Earl Jones, "but the show closed before I had a chance to take over [for Jones]."

The Shakespeare plays in which Hyman has appeared include Othello (playing the title role in five productions), Julius Caesar, The Tempest, King John, Hamlet,A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Winter's Tale, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra and Richard II.

Hyman earned a 1980 Tony nomination for Edward Albee's The Lady from Dubuque, in which he describes his experience as "heaven, heaven, heaven!" He blissfully remembers Irene Worth ("Oh, my God!") in the title role. The following year, in O'Neill's Long Days Journey into Night, Hyman played James Tyrone. "That's tops for me! Sensational! I choke up when I speak of it. We had to leave St. Peter's [Church] because another show was coming in, but Joe Papp gave us the Anspacher, the largest theatre at the Public, and we played nine months."

In 1987 he succeeded Morgan Freeman as Hoke Coleburn in Alfred Uhry's Off Broadway success, Driving Miss Daisy, playing opposite Frances Sternhagen (who took over from Dana Ivey). "That was another of the great times for me two years with my beloved Frances. We had ten days to prepare. I think Alfred Uhry wrote a masterpiece!"

For many years the actor divided his time between America and Norway, where he received the GRY Award in 1965, as the year's Best Actor for Emperor Jones, and a St. Olav Medal in 1988, for performances on the Norwegian stage. Hyman, who speaks fluent Norwegian, also starred in a 1994 sitcom, "Seier'n er var."

Hyman's most recent stage appearances have been with the Classic Theatre of Harlem, playing Firs in The Cherry Orchard and Kreon in Medea. In his newest assignment, he appears in Pinter's The Room, portraying "a blind black man who comes in near the end of the play." Before he leaves for a rehearsal, he admits, "I'm extremely shy. But, by God, if you open my mouth, you're going to have to shut it up!" Of his long career, a sincere Earle Hyman observes, "I'm grateful for it all!"

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and is the author of the book "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published next year.