Gunn, Moses 1929-1993

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Moses Gunn 1929-1993


At a Glance

Worked on Roots

Decried Limited Roles for Black Actors


Moses Gunn was a leading actor of his generation who played a wide variety of roles on the stage, in films, and on television in a career that spanned more than 30 years. Gunn was perhaps best known as a Shakespearean actor, taking part in many productions of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Despite his status as a leading player on the stage, however, Gunn most often played supporting roles in the movies and on television, limited by the few parts available to black men.

Gunn was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the eldest of seven children. His father was a laborer. At the age of nine, Gunn demonstrated talent in the field that would eventually become his lifes work when he began performing dramatic readings. Three years later, after his mother died, Gunn went to live with a foster family, headed by James and Jewel Richie. His foster mother taught English and diction, and she encouraged Gunn to develop his talents. Recalling his childhood, Gunn told Time magazine, I dont believe in making a lot of bones about poverty and the downtrodden black child and all that. Most of us didnt have an identity problem.

As a senior in high school, Gunn was offered six college scholarships, choosing to attend Tennessee State University. While studying there, he majored in speech and drama and helped to found a group of student actors called Footlights Across Tennessee, which toured black colleges throughout the South and the Midwest, performing classic plays, modern works, and comedies written in dialect by black playwrights. Gunn served in the U.S. Army from 1954 to 1957. He earned his degree from Tennessee State in 1959.

Gunn attended graduate school at the University of Kansas, where he first played the title role in William Shakespeares Othello. On leaving school, Gunn became speech and drama teacher at Grambling College in Louisiana. In the meantime, he saved money to make a stab at the New York City theater world. His first role in the 1960s was that of an understudy in an Off-Broadway production of French playwright Jean Genets The Blacks in 1962. Gunn was paid $ 15 a week for the first several months of the plays run, eventually joining the regular cast of the production.

At a Glance

Born October 2, 1929, in St. Louis, MO; son of George (a laborer) and Mary (Briggs) Gunn; married Gwendolyn Landes, 1966; children; Justin, Kirsten Sarah Landes Mudd. Education: Tennessee State University, A.B., 1959; University of Kansas, graduate work.

Teacher of speech and drama, Grambling College; actor in theater, films, and television, 19621993. Stage appearances include The Blacks, 196263; In White America, 196364; Measure for Measure, 1965; Titus Andronicus, 1967; Twelfth Night and Othello, both 1968; Sky of the Blind Pig, 1971; The Poison Tree, 1973,1976; The First Breeze of Summer, 1975; Romeo and Juliet; Coriolanus; Fool for Love; Blood Knot, and My Children, My Africa. Film appearances include Nothing but a Man, 1962; WUSA, 1970; The Great White Hope, 1970; Shaft, 1971 ; Eagle in a Cage, 1972; The Hot Rock, 1972; The Iceman Cometh, 1973; Amazing Grace, 1974; Rollerball, 1975; Remember My Name, 1981; Wild Rovers, 1981; The Ninth Configuration, 1980; Ragtime, 1982; Firestarter, 1984; The Neverending Story, 1984; Heartbreak Ridge, 1986. Television appearances include Haunts of the Very Rich, 1972; The First Breeze of Summer, 1975; Roots, Part I, 1977; Memphis; Of Mice and Men, and The Women of Brewster Place; numerous guest appearances on various series, including Kung Fu, Good Times, The Jeffer-sons, NYPD Blue, and Homicide.

Awards; Obie awards, 1967, for Titus Andronicus, and 1975, for The First Breeze of Summer; NAACP Image awards, 1981, for Ragtime, and for Fool for Love; Tony nomination for Poison Tree; Emmy nomination, 1977, for Roots.

Following this break, Gunn landed a part in a second New York play, called In White America, which ran from 1963 to 1964. Also in 1964, the actor took part in a regional theater festival in Antioch, Ohio, playing a variety of Shakespearean roles. Moving into a different medium, Gunn made his film debut in 1964 in the movie Nothing but a Man.

The following year, Gunn acted in the New York play Day of Absence, and in his first New York production of Shakespeare, Measure for Measure. During the mid-and late 1960s, Gunn gained a reputation as a first-rate interpreter of Shakespearean roles, taking part in a number of productions at the New York Shakespeare Festival, run by legendary producer Joseph Papp. Joe cast with no ethnic consciousness when no one else in New York was doing it, Gunn recollected in the Chicago Tribune. Because of Papps colorblindness, Gunn was able to earn roles frequently denied him because of his race.

In 1967 Gunn won an off-Broadway Obie award for his portrayal of Aaron the Moor in a production of Shakespeares Titus Andronicus. At the same time, he helped to found a new group of actors, the Negro Ensemble Company. By the end of the 1960s, Gunn had firmly established himself as a leading dramatic player. Time magazine hailed the resonant precision of his voice, and his assured masculinity that [lies] in his bones and not his skin, summing up, Some actors occupy the stage; a few rule it. Some actors light up a scene; a few ignite the play.

Gunn also enhanced his career in the movies, taking supporting roles in WUSA and The Great White Hope. In 1968 Gunn appeared in two Shakespeare productions, Twelfth Night and Othello, as well as a play called Sky of the Blind Pig and the movie Shaft. In the early 1970s, Gunn began to make his way onto the small screen, acting in the television movie Haunts of the Very Rich in 1972, in addition to work on the series Kung Fu.

Worked on Roots

In 1975 Gunn won a second Obie award, for his work in the play First Breeze of Summer, produced by the Negro Ensemble Company. A year later, this play was presented as a dramatic special on television. Gunns work on First Breeze was bracketed by his participation in another play, the Broadway production The Poison Tree, in which he acted in 1973 and 1976. He was nominated for a Tony Award for best actor for his work in this drama. In 1977 Gunn also took part in the groundbreaking television epic Roots. He played Kintango, the leader of a 17th-century secret African sect that preserved and performed the rights of manhood, winning an Emmy nomination for the part.

Gunn worked steadily throughout his long career, taking parts in a wide array of productions. In addition to his renowned Shakespearean interpretations, he appeared in many films. Still, despite his success, Gunn felt constrained by the limitations placed on his career by society because of his race. We have white character actors, he told Time magazine. Why dont we see the life of Negroes over 40 portrayed onstage? Whole areas of our lives are treated as if they did not exist.

As proof of the need for a greater number and wider variety of roles for black actors, Gunn cited the success of non-traditional casting in productions of the classics. When Shakespeare is done in South America or India, do you believe that anyone thinks of the parts as white roles? he asked a Time interviewer. When I played Capulet [in Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet ], several blacks kids came up to me after the show and one said, I like that. Weve never seen a black man play a role as commanding as that, and we could identify with you. It touched me. Gunn continued to appear in movies, plays, and television shows throughout the 1980s. In 1981, his portrayal of Booker T. Washington in the film Ragtime won him a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Award.

Decried Limited Roles for Black Actors

Gunn played supporting roles in the films Firestarter and The Neverending Stori; in 1984, and two years later, completed Heartbreak Ridge. On the whole, however, leading roles in films eluded him, despite his professional stature. When you talk about actors in films who are black, for a long time, the only one out there at the box office was Sidney Poitier, Gunn told the Chicago Tribune. Now there are three or four, but not many more.

Despite these barriers, Gunn said he was proud of the work he and other black actors had done. Film is a purveyor of social attitudes and has a great deal of influence, he continued in the Chicago Tribune. But you can hardly find a Puerto Rican who is a major star. Or a Chinese American. That makes me proud to be black. Were really a people who by all rights should have laid down and disappeared. And yet were involved in every aspect of cultural endeavors. We never quit.

In the late 1980s Gunn joined a theater group called Actors Enclave, a non-profit company of well-established actors dedicated to serious theater. He also began to pursue stage work in regional theater, such as the Yale Repertory Theater, where he acted in plays by prize-winning South African playwright Athol Fugard, including Blood Knot and My Children, My Africa in the early 1990s. On the West Coast, he appeared at the Los Angeles Theater Center. It was there that he took part in Fool for Love, winning a second NAACP Image Award.

Gunn also turned to off-Broadway plays in New York. In 1988, he took the leading role of Tapman in the Hudson Guild Theatres production of a play by the same name. In reviewing the production, the Christian Science Monitor praised Gunns imposing presence and commanding authority and his balanced yet sympathetic portrayal. Later that year, Gunn acted in an experimental version of Shakespeares Coriolanus at the New York Public Theater.

In addition, Gunn took a wide variety of roles on television series, appearing on the situation comedies Good Times and The Jeffersons in the 1970s and 1980s and the police dramas NYPD Blue and Homicide in the 1990s, among other programs during the years. Gunn continued to work into his sixties, stepping down from the stage only when forced to by illness. He died on December 17, 1993, at his home in Guilford, Connecticut, of complications from asthma. Throughout his career, Gunn had lent dignity to a host of characters who struggled against the circumstances of their lives. In more than 24 films, a wide range of television appearances, and over 30 years on the stage, he had fully inhabited and enriched the many roles that he played.


Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1987, p. C3; December 15, 1988, p. 15M.

Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 1988, p. 22.

Dallas Morning News, December 20, 1993, p. 36A.

Jet, January 10, 1994, p. 53.

Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1993, p. A47.

Elizabeth Rourke