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Earle Hyman, who broke racial stereotypes on Broadway and in Scandinavia in works by Shakespeare and Ibsen but was better known to millions of Americans as Bill Cosby’s father on “The Cosby Show,” died on Friday in Englewood, N.J. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by Jordan Strohl, a representative for The Actors Fund.
Like many actors who love the stage, Mr. Hyman paid the bills with television work — soap operas and police dramas, “Hallmark Hall of Fame” and “The United States Steel Hour,” and made-for-TV movies. Most memorably, he played Russell Huxtable, the father of Dr. Cliff Huxtable, in 40 episodes of Mr. Cosby’s hugely popular NBC situation comedy about an upper-middle-class black family, broadcast from 1984 to 1992.
Although he was only 11 years older than Mr. Cosby, Mr. Hyman was an authoritative father figure, sometimes reciting Shakespeare at length — in scenes especially tailored to Mr. Hyman’s classical talents — when sage advice was required for his son.
But in a stage career that bridged oceans, languages and racial sensibilities, he also played the traditionally white roles of Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear and the black roles of Othello, Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones and the chauffeur in Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy.”
He appeared on and off Broadway in a score of productions over six decades, a lifetime of Beckett, O’Neill, Pinter, Albee and lesser lights as well as Shakespeare and Ibsen.
With young contemporaries like James Earl Jones, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Morgan Freeman, Mr. Hyman was a major influence in developing black theater in America. He appeared in black-cast productions on Broadway and in regional theaters and was a founder of the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., which began in 1955 and often cast black actors in customarily white leading roles.
He was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in New York in 1997.
Skirting racial barriers that had long limited the opportunities for black actors in America, Mr. Hyman lived and worked in England for five years and spent parts of each year in Scandinavia, mostly in Norway, for more than a half century. He became fluent in Norwegian and Danish, spoke passable Swedish, and performed in Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm in plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen and O’Neill.
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