Hyman, Earle 1926–
Earle Hyman 1926–
In the United States, Earle Hyman is probably best known for his role as Russell Huxtable, the tall, kindly, and often wise father of Bill Cosby’s character on The Cosby Show, However, among his fellow actors, his reputation rests upon a solid string of roles in classical theater, especially from the plays of William Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen. Also, although few of Hyman’s fans in the United States are aware of it, he is a popular and highly regarded actor in Norway, where he often performs roles in Norwegian.
Hyman has been playing roles in Shakespearean plays since 1951. Owen Dodson, a playwright and chair of the drama department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., was also a friend of Hyman’s family. One day when Dodson was visiting, Hyman played a recording of actors reading selections from Hamlet for him. Three of the actors were well-known Shakespearean actors; the fourth voice was Hyman’s recording of himself. Impressed, Dodson cast Hyman in the title role of a production of Hamlet at Howard in 1951. He was only 25-years-old at the time. The production was so well received that 500 people had to be turned away on the last night of the show.
Two years later in 1953, Hyman was cast as the lead in a New York production of another Shakespearean tragedy, Othello. As a result of that performance, he was invited to join a Shakespeare repertory company that was just being formed, the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. During five seasons with the company, Hyman performed a wide variety of Shakespearean roles.
Hyman is more than a Shakespearean actor, yet his experiences playing such a wide range of roles in so many Shakespearean plays in the first stage of his career were a significant part of his acting apprenticeship. His love of Shakespeare began when he was 11-years-old. Hyman’s family had moved to Brooklyn from North Carolina during the Depression. However, like many African American children who lived in the North, he spent his summers down South. In an interview with Tony Brown for the Knight-Ridder\Tribune News Service, Hyman recalled that in the summer of 1937, the library in his parents’ hometown of Warrenton, North Carolina, was opened to African Americans for the first time. He went in, and asked for the biggest book they had. The librarian gave him the complete works of Shakespeare. On summer afternoons, when there was nothing better to do, Hyman read Shakespeare. “I was too young to really understand it,” he told Brown, “but it blew my mind.” In 1993, over 45 years after the summer he discovered Shakespeare, Hyman returned to North Carolina to play the role of King Lear at the age of 66. He is the only African American actor to have played all four of the major Shakespearean tragic leads: Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello.
Hyman’s passion for the theater may have begun with Shakespeare, but it was the works of the 19th century Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, that had the
At a Glance…
Born October 11, 1926 in Rocky Mount, NC; son of Zachariah Hyman and Maria Lilly Hyman; moved to Brooklyn, NY at the age of six. Education: Studied acting at the American Theater Wing with EvaLe Gallienne and at the Actor’s Studio.
Career: Was invited to join the American Negro Theater company in 1943; appeared as Rudolph in the American Negro Theater’s performance of Anna lucaste and travelled to London with this production, 1947; associated with the American Shakespeare Festival and played many roles including that of Othello, 1955–60; has played all of the major Shakespearean tragic leads: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear; performed in Driving Miss Daisy both on Broadway and in Denmark and Sweden; acted frequently in Denmark and Sweden, including playing the lead in The Emperor jones and Sam Semola in the premier of Athol Fugard’s Master Howard and the Boys in Oslo; has appeared on numerous soap operas; played the role of Russell Huxtable on The Cosby Show, 1984–92.
Honors: Nominated for a Tony award for his role in Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque, in 1979; won an ACE award for his work in a film production of Long Day’s Joumey into Night, 1983; won the Norwegian State Award for best actor for his role in The Emperor Jones, 1984; nominated for an Emmy for his role as Russell Huxtable on The Cosby Show; awarded the St. Olav Medal in Norway for his three decades of performing on the Norwegian stage, 1988.
Addresses: Home—Warrenton, NC, Agent—Henderson Hogan Talent Agency, 850 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY, 10019.
greatest impact on his career. The first play that Hyman saw was Ibsen’s The Ghosts. When he was 13, his mother gave him a choice of going to see The Wizard of Oz at a local movie theater, or going to see a production of The Ghosts at the Brighton Beach Theater. He chose the play. It was that experience that inspired Hyman to become an actor. His teachers at Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn encouraged his interest in the theatre. By the time he was 15, Hyman landed his first role when he performed in a radio series about African American history with actor Paul Robeson. When he graduated from high school, Hyman was offered a prize to attend Columbia College and study in their drama school. However, he decided to try acting on a full-time basis.
Robeson and others asked Hyman to join a new company, The American Negro Theatre in Harlem. His third role with the company was the part of Rudolph in Anna Lucasta. The play became a solid hit, and eventually moved from Harlem to Broadway. When the cast traveled to London to perform the play, Hyman, then only 21-years-old, accompanied them. His role in Anna Lucasta firmly established his acting career.
Hyman continued to be fascinated by the works of Ibsen. He began studying Norwegian, teaching himself how to read and write it so that he could read Ibsen in the original language. To learn more about his favorite playwright, Hyman decided to visit Norway in 1957. He contacted Ibsen’s grandson and his wife, and arranged to visit them. On that visit, Ibsen’s grandson introduced him to many people in the Norwegian theatre world, and Hyman fell in love with the landscape of Norway.
In 1962, when he was appearing in an American production of Othello, a friend contacted Hyman and asked him to consider playing Othello in a Norwegian production. He initially refused because he didn’t feel that he had a command of the Norwegian language. However, he began reading the play in Norwegian during his tour, and, one day during rehearsal, his fellow actors fell silent. They told Hyman that he had just recited some of his lines in Norwegian. He contacted the Norwegian company, and told them he would perform as Othello.
For Hyman, the Norwegian production of Othello was the beginning of a long association with the Scandinavian theater, and with Norway as well. During the play’s run, he fell in love with the actress who played Desde-mona, and began a 26-year romance with her. He also began to be invited to audition for other roles in the Norwegian theater. Soon, Hyman had a thriving career on both sides of the Atlantic. He would often spend half a year performing in Norway, sometimes performing in English and sometimes in Norwegian, and then spend the rest of the year performing in the United States. He played the lead in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones at the Royal Theatre in Stockholm at the request of its artistic director, Ingmar Bergman. In the early 1990’s, Hyman performed in Driving Miss Daisy in Danish, a language that is similar to Norwegian. In 1988, he read Ibsen onstage in Norwegian for the first time.
In recognition of his distinguished acting career on the Norwegian stage, the king of Norway awarded Hyman with the St, Olav Medal in 1988. This is the highest civilian honor that a foreigner can be awarded in Norway. Hyman feels equally at home in both the United States and Norway. While he owns his family’s old house in Warrenton, North Carolina, he also owns a house in a small village on the west coast of Norway, and has spoken of retiring there.
Hyman’s command of the Norwegian language has opened the door to many roles, including roles that had not been written for African Americans. Like many actors of his era, Hyman’s career has been played out against the backdrop of segregation and the civil rights movement in the United States. In the early stages of his career, he performed mostly with all-African American productions or in roles written exclusively for African American actors. Beginning in the late 1950s, theater companies in the United States began to experiment with non-traditional casting, in which actors are placed in roles according to their suitability for the role, without regard to race. When he was in rehearsal for the role of Colonel Pickering in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion ( a character that could not have been black historically), Hyman commented to a New York Times reporter that non-traditional casting was much more widely accepted in the European theater. For example, when he played the part of a Norwegian bishop in a play in Norway, no one was concerned that his race would interfere with the audience’s experience of his interpretation of the part. Non-traditional casting occurred in the United States, but it continued to be a source of controversy. In the same article, Hyman stated, Tm still saying that all roles should be made available to all actors of talent, regardless of race. Why should I be deprived of seeing a great black actress play Hedda Gabler?”
While Hyman’s major roles have been on the stage, he has also worked consistently in film and on television. He has appeared in hundreds of soap operas including Love of Life, and As the World Turns. He has played the role of Bill Cosby’s father, Russell Huxtable, on The Cosby Show beginning in 1984, and was nominated for an Emmy. During one period, he was filming The Cosby Show during the day and then appearing in the two-person play, Driving Miss Daisy, in the evening.
While some people grow into their life’s work or find it by accident, others like Hyman seem attracted to one field like a magnet from the very beginning. In an interview with David Black at the New School in New York, Hyman related the passion he feels for the theater. Of his career in theater, he remarked, “I cannot remember when I didn’t want this life of illuminated emotion, this other world, this magic.”
Black, David. The Magic of Theater, Macmillan, 1993, pp. 159–175.
Hill, Errol. Shakespeare in Sable, University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.
Mapp, Edward. Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, Scarecrow Press, 1978.
Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1988, p. 17H; August 16, 1990, p. 15C.
Knight-Ridder\Tribune News Service, Sept 1, 1993, p. 1901K7115
New York Times, March 24, 1991, sec. 2, p. 5
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Henderson Hogan Talent Agency.
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