The Seattle native won the Tony for best featured actor in a play for his work in the 2009 revival of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” one of 10 plays by August Wilson exploring the black experience in the 20th century.
Roger Robinson, a Tony Award-winning actor known for his work in August Wilson’s plays on and Off Broadway, died Sept. 26 in Escondido, California. He was 78.
The Ebony Repertory Theater in Los Angeles, where he was one of the founding actors and the first artist-in-residence, said in a news release that the cause was complications of a heart condition.
Mr. Robinson, a Seattle native, won the Tony for best featured actor in a play for his work in the 2009 revival of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” one of 10 plays by Wilson exploring the black experience in the 20th century, decade by decade. He played Bynum Walker, a sort of mystic called a rootworker.
It was Mr. Robinson’s seventh and final Broadway appearance. His first had been 40 years earlier in a short-lived play, “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” in which Al Pacino also made his attention-getting (and Tony-winning) Broadway debut.
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Mr. Robinson appeared in regional theaters all over the United States, and in films and on television. His most recent TV credits were last year in the ABC series “How to Get Away With Murder” and in the HBO movie “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” He had a recurring role on “Kojak” in the 1970s and on several series in this century, including “Rubicon.”
Bartlett Sher, who directed him in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” called him “a spectacular actor and a truly wonderful friend.”
“He was everything one hoped for in a glorious artist,” Sher said on Twitter. “He brought the gods into the room.”
Roger Lewis Robinson was born on May 2, 1940, in Seattle. His father, also named Roger, was a musician, and his mother, Naomi (Tribble) Robinson, was an educator.
He graduated from Bellevue High School in 1958 and, after a brief stay in junior college, joined the Navy. He had played the oboe in high school and the Navy sent him to its school of music near Washington, D.C. In 1961, he received a ticket through the USO to see the stage version of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” which was playing at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., after its Broadway run.
He was so struck by an actress in the cast that he went to the stage door seeking an autograph. The doorman let him go back to her dressing room, which was packed with people.
The actress was Diana Sands and once everyone else had exited, he remained.
“People left the room and she turned to me and said, ‘You want to be an actor, don’t you?’ ” Mr. Robinson recalled in a 2010 interview with the Seattle television station KCTS, an insight that crystallized an aspiration he had not realized he had. “And she said, ‘The man you have to study with is the man who directed this play.’”
That was Lloyd Richards, and before long, with Sands’ help, he would indeed be studying with him. (Mr. Robinson would eventually get to act with Sands, in “Willie Dynamite,” a 1974 movie released a few months after her death from cancer in 1973.)
Mr. Robinson made his first New York stage appearance in 1963 while still in the military. Shortly afterward, he left the Navy and began his acting career in earnest, working in summer stock in Cape May, New Jersey, and elsewhere.
Richards became a mentor and years later would direct him in the first Wilson play Mr. Robinson did on Broadway, “Seven Guitars,” in 1996.
He was brought into the pre-Broadway cast of “Seven Guitars” partway into the show’s run in San Francisco after the actor playing the difficult role of Hedley, a somewhat unbalanced old man, was deemed unsatisfactory by Wilson, Richards and the lead producer. Mr. Robinson was still reading from the script onstage in his first performances.
When the play made Broadway the next year, he received a Tony nomination for best featured actor. (He lost out to his fellow cast member Ruben Santiago-Hudson.)
Mr. Robinson’s other Broadway roles included gambler Joe Mott in the 1985 revival of “The Iceman Cometh,” the Eugene O’Neill drama. In an interview with The New York Times that year, he said the role had left him unexpectedly tapping into thoughts of his father, whose musical aspirations were frustrated and with whom he had had only a fleeting relationship after his parents divorced when he was young.
“You always go into these things thinking it has nothing to do with you,” he said of tackling the part. “But it’s the truth that O’Neill gets inside you and makes you confront your own ghosts and truths.
“I can’t tell you why my father came to me. I can’t explain it. He wasn’t Joe Mott. He didn’t end up a derelict. But there’s something O’Neill knew.”
Mr. Robinson is survived by a sister, Tina Robinson.
His last stage role was in “Some Old Black Man” at 59E59 Theaters in New York. Wendell Pierce, who played his character’s son in that production, said on Twitter that Robinson was “one of the most creative, masterful, gregarious, touching and loving actors I have ever known.”