As actor Eugene Byrd neared his twentieth anniversary in the entertainment industry, he had yet to land a solid lead role in a feature film, but was a familiar face to television and movie audiences dating all the way back to his stint on Sesame Street in the late 1980s. In 2002 he appeared in a supporting role in 8 Mile, the acclaimed biopic of Detroit rapper Eminem, and in 2006 appeared in a few episodes of the hit NBC series Heroes. A year later, he was cast in Julia, a 2007 thriller that starred Tilda Swinton in the title role as a con artist.
Born in 1975 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Byrd grew up in a northwest section of the city known as Mt. Airy. He had a brother and sister who were each nearly ten years his senior, and his mother Adrienne worked for a health-maintenance organization (HMO) as a field representative. She encouraged his early performing-arts ambitions and signed him up with a local talent agency when he was just seven years old. Within a year he began winning jobs in television commercials, starting with his debut in an ad for the New Trail granola bar from Hershey. In 1987 Bryd began a recurring role as Jelani on the acclaimed children's public-television program Sesame Street, and he also made his feature-film debut in My Little Girl, in which he co-starred with James Earl Jones, Mary Stuart Masterson, and a seven-year-old Jennifer Lopez.
Byrd appeared regularly in the NBC daytime drama Another World, and in 1990 he won a part in a television movie, Murder in Mississippi, about the notorious 1964 slaying of three civil rights workers near the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. In a cast that included Andre Braugher and CCH Pounder, Byrd appeared as the on-screen younger brother to Blair Underwood, and was happy that his first-ever dramatic role was such a worthy one. "I do think some of the roles they give black actors are stereotypes, either some kind of street kid or con artist, or some kind of a crook or gangster," a 14-year-old Byrd told Maria Gallagher, a Philadelphia Daily News staff writer. He also said that prior to filming, he spoke by phone to the real Ben Chaney, brother of the slain James Chaney, and the now-grown Ben gave him a first-hand account how terrifying that era was for young African-Americans involved in the civil rights movement, and even for members of their family. "I asked him, ‘How did you react to this situation, and that situation, and how I could portray him in this movie?’ And he just told me what to do," Byrd explained to Gallagher.
During his teens Byrd attended a private school in Philadelphia and took tap and voice lessons while between jobs. He appeared as a friend of Theo Huxtable's on four episodes of the top-rated NBC sitcom The Cosby Show in 1991 and 1992, and in 1993 appeared in the television series Ghostwriter, a British mystery series for younger viewers that aired on public television in the United States. He went on to make guest appearances or to take recurring roles on a number of prime-time television series, including Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, ER, and For Your Love. In 1995 indie-film director Jim Jarmusch cast him in the surreal Western, Dead Man, which starred Johnny Depp as a mild-mannered accountant thrust back into the violent Wild West. Byrd played one of a trio of bounty hunters chasing Depp's character.
Byrd began to win roles in impressive Hollywood fare, such as Sleepers, the 1996 drama with Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt, and Robert DeNiro, while appearing in the occasional dud, including Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God…Be Back by Five and Whiteboyz, a 1999 rap comedy. In 2001 he appeared as the on-screen boyfriend of a Boston woman whose professional success does not quell her compulsion to shoplift. Kerry Washington was the star of Lift as Niecy, with Lonette McKee as her icy, superficial mother and Byrd playing her sympathetic, worried significant other. He followed that film with 8 Mile, the Eminem movie, in which he played Wink. Despite the lavish attention showered on the Curtis Hanson project, it failed to boost Byrd's career out of its perennial mix of acclaimed indie films, low-budget Hollywood filler, and guest roles in television series. Yet he was happy that he could afford to take on indie film roles thanks to paychecks from the regular television roles and horror films, describing himself to Susan King of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as an actor who "will give up money if the role is right."
Between 2004 and 2005 Byrd appeared in a dozen episodes of Crossing Jordan as Dr. Sidney Trumaine, after winning a part in Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid. This was the sequel to Anaconda, the 1997 cult classic B-movie, and Byrd was cast as one of the team of scientists who venture deep into the jungle to search for a rare plant sought by a pharmaceutical company. His castmates included Morris Chestnut, KaDee Strickland, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, and Johnny Messner, but the giant animatronic snakes were the real stars of the movie. "For long stretches, Anacondas resembles a stripped-down episode of ‘Survivor,’ with a bit of ‘Fear Factor’ thrown in," asserted Daniel Eagan in Film Journal International. "Perhaps as a result, the multi-ethnic cast is reduced to a cross-section of annoying yuppie types…. Only bug-eyed Byrd and contemptuous career girl Richardson-Whitfield find much meat in their roles." Anacondas was filmed in Fiji, and though the serpents were fake, but Byrd did tell King in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel interview that there were other challenges, including immense spiders and physical hardships. "We were in up to our waist and it was freezing water," Byrd said. "We had to go down a mudslide at one point."
Byrd appeared in two films in 2007, Rails & Ties and Julia. The latter, directed by France's Erick Zonca in his Hollywood debut, starred Tilda Swinton as a con artist who uses a child to swindle her victims. He was also scheduled to appear in a 2008 biopic of early New Orleans jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden.
My Little Girl, 1987.
Murder in Mississippi (television movie), 1990.
Bad Attitudes (television movie), 1991.
Dead Man, 1995.
Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God…Be Back by Five, 1998.
8 Mile, 2002.
Buds for Life (also co-producer), 2004.
Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, 2004.
Rails & Ties, 2007.
At a Glance …
Born on August 28, 1975, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Adrienne Byrd (a health-care organization representative).
Career: Feature film and television actor, 1987-.
Addresses: Agent—Stephen Hirsh, Gersh Agency, 130 W. 42nd St, New York, NY 10036.
Film Journal International, December 2002, p. 56; October 2004, p. 42. Guardian (London, England), January 17, 2003, p. 12.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 5, 2004, p. 7B.
Newsweek, June 3, 1996, p. 75.
Philadelphia Daily News, February 5, 1990, p. 33.
Variety, February 5, 2001, p. 41.
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