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Clarence Gilyard, the veteran actor who had notable roles in Die Hard, Matlock and Walker, Texas Ranger before becoming a theater professor and author, has died. He was 66.
The University of Nevada Las Vegas College of Fine Arts, where Gilyard taught, announced his death Monday afternoon, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He had been suffering from a long illness. No further details were released.
In a rich and varied career that spanned five decades, Gilyard achieved success in film, television and on stage. For film fans, he is perhaps best known for playing Theo, Hans Gruber’s cocky computer hacker in 1988’s Die Hard. In the 1990s, he was a familiar face on primetime television, first for playing private investigator Conrad McMasters on the legal drama Matlock and then, in a career-defining role, as Ranger James Trivette on the long-running Walker, Texas Ranger.
Born Clarence Darnell Gilyard Jr. in 1955 in Moses Lake, Washington, he grew up as an Air Force brat. He entered the U.S. Air Force Academy after high school but left after a year. He attended Sterling College in Kansas, playing wide receiver for the football team, but couldn’t afford to stay there and moved to California. He then enrolled at Cal State University Long Beach and signed up for an acting class.
Gilyard dropped out of college and appeared in minor television roles in series including Diff’rent Strokes. He also played Officer Ben Webster on the last season of ChiPs in the 1982-83 season and Roland Culp, opposite Jim Carrey, on NBC’s The Duck Factory.
Gilyard’s big TV break came in 1989 when he landed the role of Conrad McMasters on NBC’s Matlock opposite a boyhood hero in Andy Griffith. “Andy could have chosen any one of a thousand guys to be his partner for four seasons and he chose me,” Gilyard told the Review-Journal in 2017. “Andy was funny and a raconteur and a craftsman. I don’t think I was funny before him. He would teach me comic timing.”
Replacing the fired Kene Holliday, Gilyard played Ben Matlock’s second private investigator in nearly every episode from seasons four to seven, with guest appearances in season eight, for a total of 96 episodes.
He left Matlock in 1993 to star on CBS’ Walker, Texas Ranger. Starring opposite Chuck Norris’ Walker, Gilyard played Texas Ranger Sergeant James “Jimmy” Trivette, the protagonist’s best friend and partner. A phenomenally popular show, Walker, Texas Ranger ran for eight seasons — a total of 203 episodes — and spawned a 2005 television film, Trial by Fire, that featured a cameo by Gilyard.
His other notable TV credits include NBC’s The Facts of Life and 227, CBS’ Simon & Simon and a supporting role in Michael Mann’s highly influential television movie L.A. Takedown.
Gilyard’s first film appearance came in 1986 and was the not-insignificant role of Lieutenant Junior Grade Marcus “Sundown” Williams, one of the elite fighter pilots in Tony Scott’s monster hit Top Gun.
Gilyard’s best-known movie role came in John McTiernan’s action classic Die Hard, playing tech whiz Theo, a key member of Gruber’s band of terrorist thieves. He revived his role for a well-received Die Hard battery commercial that aired during Super Bowl LV in February 2021. The ad saw Gilyard reunite with Die Hard co-star Bruce Willis and De’voreaux White (limo driver Argyle).
After appearing in Die Hard, Gilyard focused mainly on television work and did not have another prominent movie role until he landed the part of Bruce Barnes in the faith-based franchise Left Behind.
An avowedly religious man and convert to Catholicism, Gilyard appeared in 2000’s Left Behind and the 2002 sequel Left Behind II: Tribulation Force. He also appeared in the 2014 faith-based drama A Matter of Faith.
After the end of Walker, Texas Ranger, Gilyard switched to teaching screen and theater acting at UNLV in 2006 and directing productions at the Nevada Conservatory Theatre. On why he moved into teaching, Gilyard told the Review-Journal, “I met my wife, got married, then we had kids, and my first two children didn’t have me. I was out acting all the time — 15 straight years on network television. But the commitment to my family and my wife is paramount. I knew if I didn’t work on the marriage that it wouldn’t work.”
“[Gilyard’s] students were deeply inspired by him, as were all who knew him. He had many extraordinary talents and was extremely well-known in the university through his dedication to teaching and his professional accomplishments,” UNLV College of Fine Arts Dean Nancy Uscher said in a statement to the Review-Journal. “His generosity of spirit was boundless — he was always ready to contribute to projects and performances however possible.”
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