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Remembering Bill Nunn: Actor, Mentor, and Friend

Veteran film, stage, and television actor William Goldwyn “Bill” Nunn III passed away peacefully with his family by his side on Saturday, September 24, 2016, after a courageous multiple-year battle with cancer. Nunn’s early years as an actor were spent on the stage. After portraying his most famous film character, Radio Raheem, in the Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing (1989), screen work came to him at rapid speed. He was featured in several hits including the thriller New Jack City (1991) and the comedy Sister Act (1992), in which he played the cop assigned to protect a witness (Whoopi Goldberg). He was also in the The Last Seduction (1994), the oddball crime movie Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Michael Moore’s comedy Canadian Bacon (both 1995) and numerous thrillers, including Extreme Measures”(1996), Kiss the Girls (1997) and Runaway Jury (2003). His most recent screen work was as a paramedic on the US TV adaptation (2014-15) of the comedy series Sirens. With some 60 films to his credits, Nunn was also a presence on stage, and he enjoyed an extensive career in theater, appearing on and off-Broadway in such productions as August Wilson’s Fences, and Lorraine Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun, performing with Viola Davis, Phylicia Rashad, and Audra McDonald, to name a few.

Nunn, born October 20, 1952, was a native son of Pittsburgh’s Hill District—a community steeped in creativity. Many first became aware of his talent in Spike Lee’s School Daze, a relatable film for any of us who attended an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) and an indoctrination in 1970s black college life for those who did not. Nunn’s experiences at Morehouse College, his alma mater, most assuredly prepared him for the role. But acting was not why he had originally gone to this prestigious institution. After graduating from Schenley High School in the Hill District, Nunn, who wanted to be a writer, was studying English in his early college career when he fell by chance into acting after accompanying a friend to an audition for a play. The director asked Nunn if he would be an extra body to fill out the cast. He obliged. But once he got a taste of acting he fell in love with it. After graduating in 1976, he put aside his ambitions to become a writer and focused on acting. He stayed in Atlanta and was an artist in residence at Spelman College, citing “I got out of college, and immediately started to teach acting. One of the first jobs I had was in a federally funded program where I taught drama to young people.”

This interest in teaching his craft to young people would become his legacy. In 2008, he founded the Bill Nunn Theatre Outreach Project, which creates a platform for underserved public school students in the Pittsburgh region to gain access to theater arts and work with seasoned professionals within the field. Committed students go on to compete in the August Wilson Monologue Competition in New York, at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway.

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Charles “Teenie” Harris, Bill Nunn Jr. and Bride Frances Bell Nunn, August 12, 1950. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.

In 2011, Bill served as master of ceremonies for the opening night gala for the exhibition Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story. Although he was in a wheelchair part of the time, he was at once funny, charming, and sincere in his appreciation of Teenie’s work and neighborhood antics. He was also instrumental in helping staff identify dozens of images in the archive—to which he was no stranger. Teenie had photographed Bill’ s family dozens of times, like his parents’ wedding in August 1950, as pictured here.

This year, Bill served as guest curator for the exhibition Teenie Harris Photographs: Great Performances, which was a collaboration with the August Wilson Center. To my knowledge, working on Great Performances was the last public creative endeavor he participated in. Despite serious health challenges, Bill devotedly narrowed down more than 250 Harris images of both national stars and community performers. Admirably, his community concerns shone through as he also highlighted local amateur talent along with the stars found in Teenie’s photos. As Bill said at the time: “Both Teenie Harris and August Wilson are renowned for transforming the common man’s plight into powerful imagery.” And so did Bill. In Do the Right Thing, his soliloquy as Radio Raheem focuses on the moral heart’s ceaseless contest between love and hate. The character’s choking death at the hands of police officers in front of a crowd of his neighbors incites the film’s wrenching final scenes.

I grew up knowing Bill’s parents and grandparents as friends of my family. His grandfather Bill Nunn Sr. spent 40 consecutive years working at the Pittsburgh Courier, and his father, Bill Jr., worked there as well, eventually becoming its editor, only leaving later in his career to become a scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers. His mother has the sweetest voice and demeanor, which has seemingly never been ruffled. I had the honor of interviewing his parents for our Teenie Harris Oral History collection, and as we reviewed the dozens of family images in the archive, they spoke about their accomplishments with distinct pride. Bill is survived by his wife, two children, his mother and sister, and myriad other family and close friends. As the final curtain has dropped on the dynamic life and career of Bill Nunn, the Teenie Harris Archive salutes him with a bouquet of sincere appreciation for his diligent participation in our projects. Though often imagined as the audacious Radio Raheem, most of us will remember this gentle giant as the consummate blend of talent, insight, dedication, and perseverance—a delight to work with.

To learn more about the work of Charles “Teenie” Harris, visit the story archives.