At 6ft 5in tall, William Marshall in the 1950s became a favorite action hero (along with Woody Strode) for black cinema audiences in films such as Lydia Bailey (1952), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) and Sabu and the Magic Ring (1958).
The Gary, Indiana native was born 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.
In 1962, Marshall was invited to play Othello at the Dublin Theatre Festival in a production that toured several European countries. Errol Hill said 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.”
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During one London production, Marshall was hailed as “the best Othello of our time” by the London Sunday Times. He would go on to spend five of his early professional years in Europe, performing in classic theater.
Confident, polished and sophisticated, Marshall was a good actor. He had studied acting at the Actors Studio and the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City after spending several years as an art student at New York University. From the start of his acting career, he combined his love of theater with his commitment to promoting African-American heritage. It is that commitment which led him to African-American statesman Frederick Douglass whom he played on stage and television after 15 years of research.
In 1983, Marshall appeared on American television as Frederick Douglass in Slave And Statesman. His one-man show, “Enter Frederick Douglass,” of the famed abolitionist toured Los Angeles and several other cities in the early 1990s.
“I first became aware of Douglass back in school in Gary, Ind.,” Marshall told The Times in 1983. “There were basically only two black figures of note in the history book, Booker T. Washington and Douglass. There was a lot of information about Washington but almost nothing about Douglass. That began my search for literature about the man, a search that continues to this day.”
Marshall received steady recognition for bringing black history and heritage to the stage and to television, winning two local Emmy awards in 1974. He also taught acting workshops on college campuses, including UC Irvine, and at the Mufandi Institute in Watts.
Aside being an actor William Marshall was also a writer and director. In the 1970s he reached a new generation of filmgoers as the lead in “blaxploitation” movie Blacula (1972) and its weaker sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream! (1973), the first major black horror films.
Helping to improve the image of African-Americans on television, Marshall appeared in such series as Rawhide, Bonanza and Star Trek. From 1987 to 1989, he was the King of Cartoons in a Saturday morning children’s television show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, a job he accepted on behalf of his grandchildren.
It’s curious that for one who trained in Grand Opera, Broadway and Shakespeare and featured in films from the 50s and 60s including: Lydia Bailey (1952), Something of Value (1957), To Trap a Spy (1964) and The Boston Strangler (1968) with Tony Curtis, it had to take the “blaxploitation” era of the 70s for Marshall to hit it big.
His Broadway credits include “Carmen Jones” (1944), understudying Boris Karloff as “Captain Hook” in “Peter Pan” in 1950, playing lead role of “De Lawd” in the 1951 revival of “The Green Pastures” (a role he repeated in a BBC telecast of the play in 1958).
Marshall was the unmarried partner for 42 years of Sylvia Gussin Jarrico. Marshall died on June 11, 2003, from complications arising from Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. He left behind children – Tariq Marshall, Malcolm, Claude Marshall and daughter, singer Gina Loring.