William Marshall

Actor acclaimed for his noble Othello
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The Independent Online

William Marshall, actor, writer and director: born Gary, Indiana 19 August 1924; (three sons, one daughter); died Los Angeles 11 June 2003.

William Marshall was the tall, physically imposing African- American actor who, in the 1950s, became a favourite action hero (along with Woody Strode) for black cinema audiences in films such as Lydia Bailey (1952), in which he played King Dick, the revolutionary Haitian, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) and Sabu and the Magic Ring (1958). The film historian Donald Bogle, in Blacks in American Film and Television (1988), describes him:

Confident, polished, sophisticated, he projected an unusual mixture of physical strength and a sharp, discerning intelligence. He was also sexual in a period when the lid was always kept on a black male's sexuality. Moreover, he was a good actor. But the important film roles never came his way.

In the 1970s Marshall reached a new generation of filmgoers as the lead in Blacula (1972) and its inferior sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream! (1973), the first major black horror films. Though reviews were poor, Danny Peary describes Marshall's vampire in Cult Movie Stars (1991) as, "an interesting character . . . refined, frightening, evil, and sexual".

William Marshall was born in Gary, Indiana, in 1924 and educated at New York University and the American Theater Wing. In a career that spanned five decades, he made many stage appearances, including in the 1990s in a one-man show about the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, which he researched and wrote himself, and had guest roles on a number of top-rated American television shows including Star Trek and Bonanza.

In 1962 Marshall was invited to play Othello at the Dublin Theatre Festival in a production that toured several European countries. Errol Hill says in Shakespeare in Sable: a history of black Shakespearean actors (1984):

Marshall won a great victory. Ecstatic acclaim greeted him, with the Irish critics hailing his performance as a wonderful personal triumph.

Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times described him as the best Othello of our time -

nobler than [Godfrey] Tearle, more martial than [John] Gielgud, more poetic than [Frederick] Valk. From his first entry, slender and magnificently tall, framed in a high Byzantine arch, clad in white samite, mystic, wonderful, a figure of Arabian romance and grace, to his last plunging of the knife into his stomach, Mr Marshall rode without faltering the play's enormous rhetoric, and at the end the house rose to him.

Marshall had already played Othello at least four times in America: in 1953 at the Mother Zion AME Church in Harlem and to New York City schools; in 1955 for the Brattle Street Players in Cambridge, moving later to New York; in 1958 for the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park; and on American television in their Omnibus series. Hill says, "For none of these performances were his reviews wholly laudatory, but everyone remarked on his handsome, commanding figure and resonant baritone voice."

Writing of the Brattle Theatre performance, John Chapman in the New York Daily News could not avoid comparing Marshall with Paul Robeson, finding Marshall to be a more gifted actor, with the intelligence of a stage craftsman. In 1958 Marshall's success in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Othello led him to Stratford-upon-Avon to replace Robeson in the role. Robeson's passport problems temporarily cast doubt on his availability, so Marshall was hired as a replacement and gracefully withdrew when Robeson was finally granted permission to make the trip.

Remaining in Britain, Marshall accepted an offer from the BBC to play De Lawd in a television production of Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures (1958) and on the London stage he was seen at the Piccadilly Theatre in Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic (1960).

In the 1950s the Guyanese writer Jan Carew and his Jamaican wife, Sylvia Wynter, were part of an important generation of African-Caribbean poets and novelists who lived and worked in Britain. In 1961 they were commissioned to adapt their BBC radio drama The University of Hunger for British television, for ITV's Drama '61 anthology series. Based on events that happened in Guyana in 1958, it tells the story of three men who break out of prison and try to escape not only from their past, but from the harsh reality of their lives.

The recording that was made of this compelling production, retitled The Big Pride, remained forgotten until I rediscovered it and persuaded the National Film and Television Archive to acquire the damaged negative, restore it, and make a new viewing copy. It is a unique visual record of the work of two important black dramatists, for very few examples of the early television plays of African-Caribbean writers have survived. Marshall headed the largely African-Caribbean cast of The Big Pride, produced by Herbert Wise.

It had been unseen for 36 years until a special screening was held for the National Film Theatre in 1997. Wise attended, along with several surviving cast members, including Nadia Cattouse and Tommy Eytle. To the surprise and delight of the audience, just 10 minutes before the screening, Jan Carew arrived from America to introduce the event. But we were unable to locate William Marshall, whose magnificent portrayal of the embittered prison escapee held the audience spellbound.

Stephen Bourne