Austin 'Heavy' Williams
Moses Gunn (1929 – 1993) was a leading actor of his generation who played a wide variety of roles on the stage, in films, and on television in a career that spanned more than 30 years. Gunn was perhaps best known as a Shakespearean actor, taking part in many productions of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Despite his status as a leading player on the stage, however, Gunn most often played supporting roles in the movies and on television, limited by the few parts available to black men.
Gunn was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the eldest of seven children. His father was a laborer. At the age of nine, Gunn demonstrated talent in the field that would eventually become his life’s work when he began performing dramatic readings. Three years later, after his mother died, Gunn went to live with a foster family, headed by James and Jewel Richie. His foster mother taught English and diction, and she encouraged Gunn to develop his talents.
As a senior in high school, Gunn was offered six college scholarships, choosing to attend Tennessee State University. While studying there, he majored in speech and drama and helped to found a group of student actors called Footlights Across Tennessee, which toured black colleges throughout the South and the Midwest, performing classic plays, modern works, 16
and comedies written in dialect by black playwrights. Gunn served in the U.S. Army from 1954 to 1957. He earned his degree from Tennessee State in 1959.
Gunn attended graduate school at the University of Kansas, where he first played the title role in William Shakespeare’s Othello. His first role in the 1960s was that of an understudy in an Off-Broadway production of French playwright Jean Genet’s The Blacks in1962. Following this break, Gunn landed a part in a second New York play, called In White America, which ran from 1963 to 1964. Also in 1964, the actor took part in a regional theater festival in Antioch, Ohio, playing a variety of Shakespearean roles. His Broadway debut wasin A Hand is on the Gate, an evening of African-American poetry. Gunn made his film debut in 1964 in the movie Nothing but a Man. The following year, Gunn acted in the New York play Day of Absence, and in his first New York production of Shakespeare, Measure for Measure. During the mid-and late 1960s, Gunn gained a reputation as a first-rate interpreter of Shakespearean roles, taking part in a number of productions at the New York Shakespeare Festival, run by legendary producer Joseph Papp. In 1967 Gunn won an off-Broadway Obie award for his portrayal of Aaron the Moor in a production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. At the same time, he helped to found a new group of actors, the Negro Ensemble Company. By the end of the 1960s, Gunn had firmly established himself as a leading dramatic player.
In 1968 Gunn appeared in two Shakespeare productions, Twelfth Night and Othello, as well as a play called Sky of the Blind Pig. Gunn further enhanced his career in the movies by taking supporting roles in the 1970 films WUSA and The Great White Hope.
In the early 1970s. He portrayed the mobster Ellsworth Raymond in Shaft (1971), and Shafts Big Score (1972). He began to make his way onto the small screen, acting in the television movie Haunts of the Very Rich in 1972, in addition to work on the series Kung Fu.
In 1975 Gunn won a second Obie award, for his work in Leslie Lee's play, First Breeze of Summer, produced by the Negro Ensemble Company. A year later, this play was presented as a dramatic special on television. His work on First Breeze was bracketed by his participation in another play, the Broadway production The Poison Tree, in 1973 and again in 1976, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award as best actor. In 1977 he took part in the groundbreaking television epic Roots playing Kintango, the leader of a 17th-century secret African sect that preserved and performed the rights of manhood, for which he won an Emmy nomination. Gunn continued to appear in movies, plays, and television shows throughout the 1980s. In 1981, his portrayal of Booker T. Washington in the film Ragtime won him an NAACP Image Award. He played the character Austin 'Heavy' Williams in the Sundance-Award winning independent film, The Killing Floor, that premiered in 1984. That year he also had supporting roles in the films Firestarter and The NeverEnding Story, playing Cairon, the Childlike Empress' imperial physician. Two years later, he completed Heartbreak Ridge.
In the late 1980s Gunn joined a theater group called Actor’s Enclave, a non-profit company of well-established actors dedicated to serious theater. He also began to pursue stage work in regional theater, such as the Yale Repertory Theater, where he acted in plays by prize-winning South African playwright Athol Fugard, including Blood Knot and My Children, My Africa in the early 1990s. On the West Coast, he appeared at the Los Angeles Theater Center. It was there that he took part in Fool for Love, winning a second NAACP Image Award. Gunn also turned to off-Broadway plays in New York. In 1988, he took the leading role in the Hudson Guild Theatre’s 17 production of Tapman. Later that year, Gunn acted in an experimental version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at the New York Public Theater. In addition, Gunn took a wide variety of roles on television series, appearing on the situation comedies Good Times and The Jeffersons in the 1970s and 1980s and the police dramas NYPD Blue and Homicide in the 1990s, among other programs during the years. Gunn continued to work into his sixties, stepping down from the stage only when forced to by illness. In 1989, Gunn appeared in two episodes of The Cosby Show as two different characters. His final acting role was as murder suspect Risley Tucker in "Three Men and Adena", an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street.