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Earle Hyman, the admired stage, television and film actor best known for playing Bill Cosby’s sage father, Russell Huxtable, on The Cosby Show, has died. He was 91.
Hyman died Friday at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey, his nephew Rick Ferguson told The Hollywood Reporter.
Hyman played Othello hundreds of times, appeared often on Broadway and received a Tony nomination for featured actor in a play for his performance as Oscar in the original 1980 production of Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque. He also appeared on stages throughout Europe during his career.
Meanwhile, animation fans know him as the baritone voice of the aggressive Panthro, a member of the ThunderCats. He worked on 125 episodes of that cartoon series in the 1980s.
From 1984-92, across 40 episodes of NBC’s ratings smash, Hyman was always memorable on The Cosby Show as obstetrician Cliff Huxtable’s dad and a wise grandfather to Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), Denise (Lisa Bonet), Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), Rudy (Keshia Knight Pulliam) and Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf).
Russell was at one time a prominent jazz trombonist who went by the nickname “Slide” Huxtable. (In real life, he was just 11 years older than Cosby.) His wife, Anna, was played by the late actress Clarice Taylor.
In 1986, Hyman received an Emmy nomination for outstanding guest performer in a comedy series for his work on the episode “Happy Anniversary.”
That season-two installment centered on the Huxtable clan planning the 49th wedding anniversary for Russell and Anna. It included a memorable scene of the family lip-syncing to Ray Charles’ “(Night Time Is) the Right Time.”
“That’s the one episode that was the most loved, most seen. People just loved it. It just shot off the charts,” Hyman recalled in 2009 on the podcast Just My Show. “We just had a ball, and the atmosphere just went over into a kind of reality. We were no longer Clarice and Earle, we were really Anna and Russell Huxtable.”
In 1997, TV Guide voted it the 54th greatest TV episode of all time.
Hyman made his Broadway debut in 1944 in Anna Lucasta and appeared over the years on the Great White Way in The Merchant of Venice; in the original production of No Time for Sergeants; as the title character in the Nigeria-set Mister Johnson; twice in Saint Joan, more than a decade apart; in Waiting for Godot in an acclaimed all-black production in 1957; in Les Blancs; and in Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder, opposite Lynn Redgrave.
Born on Oct. 11, 1926, in Rocky Mount, N.C., Hyman was the son of schoolteachers with Native-American and African-American roots. He was raised in Brooklyn and began his film career with an uncredited appearance in the best picture Oscar winner The Lost Weekend (1945).
Hyman also guest-starred on many TV shows in the 1950s and ‘60s, including Camera Three, East Side/West Side and The Defenders, and he appeared on the big screen in the war film The Bamboo Prison (1954) and in the crime drama Fighting Back (1982).
An admirer of Ibsen, Hyman took a vacation to Oslo in 1957, eventually became fluent in Norwegian and owned property in that country.
“The only place I’m a star in the true sense of the word is Norway,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “There they come to see me and hope the play is all right. I’m the only foreign actor and only black actor who performs in both Norwegian languages.”
In addition to Ferguson, his survivors include his nieces Cassandra, Yvette and Monica and nephew Derryl.
Hyman’s death was first reported by the website Broadway Black.
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