Earlier this year, the Folger Shakespeare Library was privileged to receive the Earle Hyman Collection, including many of the actor’s personal papers, photographs, and theatrical ephemera, as a gift from his family and friends. Although we’re closed for renovations, we wanted to highlight this fabulous collection, as well as to recognize Mr. Hyman, his achievements, and his enormous contribution to theater worldwide. We look forward to a time in the future when this collection will be available for research.
Many readers may recognize Earle Hyman as the voice (and what a voice!) of the mechanic character Panthro from the 1985 cartoon ThunderCats. Still others may know him as Russell “Slide” Huxtable, Cliff Huxtable’s father on The Cosby Show, for which he earned an Emmy nomination in 1986.
But Mr. Hyman’s life and career extended so far beyond these two contributions. Although he passed away in 2017 at the age of 91, his generosity, warmth, and enthusiasm for life—and in particular for theater—continue to reverberate. It is impossible to listen to or read one of his many interviews without being swept away by his voice (a supple, warm baritone with extraordinary range and depth), his detailed memory, or his expansive storytelling.
Born on October 11, 1926 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Mr. Hyman first knew he wanted to be an actor at age 4. He recalled being asked to memorize a poem for his church, and feeling the pull of the stage. Later, after his family had moved north to Brooklyn in search of better educational opportunities in a nation hobbled by Jim Crow laws, he attended a performance of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, and was transfixed. “Good thing my parents didn’t know what the play was about,” he recalled in a 2008 interview.1 But that was that: he knew he “had to do something behind that green velvet curtain.” As a young man just out of high school, he remembered saving all his money meant for food to be able to attend the theater instead, and taking work in any theater-related jobs he could find just to be close to that world.
(Video by Melinda Hall/Willful Pictures; learn more about it in our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast)
In 1944 at the age of 17, he broke into the professional world as Rudolph in the American Negro Theater’s production of Anna Lucasta. It was so successful in Harlem that it moved to Broadway—the first such production there that showed an all-Black cast in a play that did not deal with racial themes. The production toured the United States and then eventually went to London. Mr. Hyman’s real theatrical loves were Shakespeare, followed closely (and sometimes eclipsed by) Ibsen. He recalled encountering Shakespeare’s Works in 1937, when his segregated hometown finally opened a library that he could visit as a Black child, and he asked the librarian for the biggest book they had. In 1951, less than fifteen years later, he starred as Hamlet in Howard University’s production, “the role that I had loved so much for so long,” to wide acclaim. One account notes that theater-goers were turned away at the door; all of Washington wanted to see his interpretation of Shakespeare’s Danish Prince. The Evening Star praised his work, noting that “[Earle Hyman] moves through the role with an arresting sureness of touch that is the play’s best feature.”2 He was only 25.
Mr. Hyman recalls that at first he was not enthusiastic about playing Othello. He hated the idea “that this white villain…would get [Othello] to believe in the infidelity of his wife.” But he changed his mind when he saw Paul Robeson’s performance at the Shubert Theater, attending at least ten times. Robeson, as many readers will know, was the first Black actor to play Othello in the United States, doing so opposite the white actress Uta Hagen and thereby challenging the country’s racial taboos. “It’s something I’ll never forget,” Mr. Hyman remarked in an interview, recalling what it was like to attend those performances. “The pride; the wonder.”
By his own reckoning he played Othello over 500 times over the course of his career, often to great praise (one reviewer called an early portrayal “hot, incisive, and fluidly furious”). Beginning in 1955, Mr. Hyman spent five years as an original cast member with the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut where he took on multiple roles, often advocating for his own ability to play Shakespearean roles that until then were overwhelmingly only seen as roles for white actors. This included characters such as Caliban, Horatio, Macbeth, and Lear. Mr. Hyman speaks deeply of his regard for Shakespeare, but his love of Ibsen eventually drew him to Norway, Ibsen’s home country, on vacation. While there, he was invited to star in a performance of Othello in Norwegian and did so. He loved the country so much, he became fluent in both main dialects of the language and rocketed to stardom. He regularly toured as a member of Norwegian companies, gaining facility with Danish and Swedish in addition to Norwegian. He regarded Norway as a second home, calling it “my beloved Norway.”
Although Earle Hyman was awarded the St. Olaf’s Medal, Norway’s highest honor, for his theatrical achievements, he never gained this level of national recognition from American audiences, which he so richly deserved. His contributions to theater in the United States as well as internationally, and the quality of artistry he brought to the roles he played, ought to be deeply studied and used to inspire future generations of theatrical students. He was a consummate storyteller—the timber and color of his voice shifting, rising, and falling mesmerizingly as he recalled the roles he had played, the people he met, the places he visited, and his love for the stage. “My whole life has been nothing but the theater, and I hope I can die saying that,” he once mused. “There is no other thing for me than standing on a stage.”
The Earle Hyman Collection is an incredible gathering of family memorabilia, photographs, posters, objects, awards, costume designs, annotated scripts, personal correspondence, journals, props, newspaper clippings, and more. Mr. Hyman lived with his partner of fifty years, a Norwegian seaman named Rolf Sirnes, and many photos and correspondence appear to relate to their relationship. Mr. Hyman described this as a “passionate friendship,” calling Rolf his “partner.”
Although we have yet to fully process these materials, and they will not be available for research until we are able to do so, the glimpses we have been able to see of his life, loves, and passion for theater are truly glorious—they embody his sheer, utter joy in being alive and in making theater accessible to everyone. He was known in particular for encouraging young, lesser-known actors, for mentoring aspiring students, and for his generosity to all who approached him.
In taking on this collection, our promise to Mr. Hyman’s friends and family was that the Folger would be a place where his legacy could be ensured, and through which he would finally be recognized to the extent he had not been in life for his historic contributions: these include being the first Black American to play all four of Shakespeare’s most well-known roles (Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, and Othello); the first American to perform in Norwegian; his activities as a central member of iconic companies and productions in the history of American and Norwegian theater; and more. Above all, we want to ensure the survival in our cultural memory of a dynamic presence who was a friend to all he met and who lived with such infinite joy and generosity.
- All quotes in this article are taken from a 2008 interview with Nick Mills of “ThunderCats Lair.”
- Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 21 July 1951. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1951-07-21/ed-1/seq-35/>