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What Ever Happened to Earle Hyman?

Most fans will recognize Earle Hyman as Cliff Huxtable’s lovable dad on The Cosby Show, a role that garnered him an Emmy nod. But there’s a lot more to this 87-year-old stage veteran and past Tony nominee, who shared with JET some reflections on his amazing career.

JET: What did you enjoy the most about your time on The Cosby Show?

Earle Hyman: It was fun. Mr. Cosby is a comedic genius. It was sheer joy working on the show and learning from him. I’m an eternal student. There was a lot of laughing, and the cast had a great time. But it wasn’t playtime. It was hard work.

JET: When did you realize you wanted to become an actor?

EH: As a little boy, visiting the South, my friends and I would pay our 10 cents and go upstairs to the “colored section” of the movie theater, the peanut gallery. I was there anytime I could get 10 cents. I was fascinated by the movies: Lena Horne, Bette Davis, Tarzan, King Kong— I loved it all. I internalized how these performers could do what they could do. I wanted to imitate them. I believe in the reality of acting. It was my life. Acting made my life meaningful. I am grateful for the many opportunities I had to perform in Europe. I was hopping across the Atlantic Ocean like it was a pond. In the States, I started out with the American Negro Theater at age 17. I was thrilled to be a part of this company, which had some of the finest actors who ever walked the boards, like Sidney Poitier. I loved all roles, big or small.

JET: After moving from the South to New York as a kid, what did you find different about the city?

EH: I was born in Rocky Mount, NC, where my maternal grandmother is from. My mother took my younger brother and two younger sisters and me and relocated to Brooklyn, NY, when I was around 6 years old for a better education. North Carolina had beautiful, natural surroundings. I would go back every summer. But New York was a place of magic, and right across the river was Broadway.

JET: What did you love most about performing Shakespeare?

EH: I played the role of Othello over 500 times. Paul Robeson and I are often remembered for our portrayals of Othello. I’m proud of that. Shakespeare’s works seem so real to me. He wrote fascinating characters and captured the excitement of the times. Even though his writings are from the 1500s and 1600s, his plays are still being done today using the very words he wrote. I’ll tell any performer, if you want some real excitement, try Shakespeare.

JET: You have many acting credits in Norway. What is your connection to that country?  

EH: When I was performing in England many decades ago, I decided to go on a vacation to Norway. One reason for visiting was my admiration for the late, great Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen, whose play Ghosts I had seen at a young age. I fell in love with the country and people right away. So I decided to study Norwegian through the American-Scandinavian Foundation. I was fluent after seven years.

JET: What advice do you have for young people considering a career in acting?

EH: Keep acting, keep working. You may shed a tear or two, but there’s also a lot of fun along the way.

JET: You last appeared on stage in the 2009 Classical Theatre of Harlem production Three Sisters. Are you officially retired from acting and voiceover work?

EH: You never retire. Acting is in my blood.