STAGE TO SCREENS: Stage and Screen Star Earle Hyman

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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.


"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]"


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