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Shakespeare & Beyond

Earle Hyman: An actor makes history

Earle Hyman as Othello
Earle Hyman as Othello

Bust of Earle Hyman as Othello, by Siri Aurdal I

When the Folger Shakespeare Library opens on June 21—just three weeks from today—one of the wonders of its new public spaces will be the Shakespeare Exhibition Hall, packed with intriguing highlights from the Folger collection, interactive activities, and more. Among the more recently acquired items on exhibit is this bust of actor Earle Hyman–just one part of the Earle Hyman Collection, which the Folger Shakespeare Library received as a gift from his family and friends in 2020.

While Hyman was well known for his roles in the ThunderCats series and The Cosby Show, he made historical contributions in his stage career, which lasted for many decades. He was the first African American actor to play all four of the major Shakespearean roles of Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, and Othello. He was also a central member of iconic companies and productions in the history of American and Norwegian theater.

The following are adapted excerpts from a post by Elizabeth DeBold for the Folger’s “Collation” blog in 2020 about the Earle Hyman Collection. Read the full blog post and see more photos at the Collation.

All quotes are taken from a 2008 interview with Nick Mills of “ThunderCats Lair.”


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 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. 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. 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.

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. 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 15 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. [In addition to the bust, the Shakespeare Exhibition Hall will display two of these reviews when it first opens.] He was only 25.

Stage production photo of Earle Hyman as the Prince of Morroco in The Merchant of Venice (1953)
Earle Hyman as the Prince of Morocco in a 1953 production of Merchant of Venice

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, 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.

Three costume designs for Othello for Earle Hyman in different styles and colors
Costume design for productions of “Othello” with Earle Hyman

Hyman spoke 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. 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.”

A photo of Hyman accepting the St. Olav's Medal
Earle Hyman received the St. Olav’s Medal, Norway’s highest honor, in 1986 for his contributions to theater

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. Hyman lived with his partner of 50 years, a Norwegian seaman named Rolf Sirnes, and many photos and correspondence appear to relate to their relationship. He described this as a “passionate friendship,” calling Rolf his “partner.” Throughout the collection the glimpses we have been able to see of Earle Hyman’s 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.