William (Bill) Walker, the grandson of slaves, a veteran of more than 60 films in a 65-year career but proudest of his two decades on the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors, died Monday. He was 95, said SAG spokesman Harry Medved, when he died at the Motion Picture & Television Hospital in Woodland Hills of the complications of cancer.
Probably best known as the sagacious Rev. Sykes in the 1962 classic "To Kill a Mockingbird," Walker was a bandleader and singer after serving with the Army in France in World War I. He wended his way to Hollywood after Broadway appearances that included Oscar Hammerstein's 1929 "Golden Dawn."
His first featured film role was as Sam in the 1946 "The Killers," the picture that brought stardom to Burt Lancaster.
Successively, he was seen in "Canon City," "Larceny," "Bad Boy," "Young Man With a Horn" (again as a minister), "The Harlem Globetrotters," "The Outcast," "Good Morning, Miss Dove," "The Mask," "Walk on the Wild Side," "The Great White Hope," "Twilight's Last Gleaming" and many more.
In a 1981 Times interview he called "Mockingbird" his most rewarding film and said he tried to make his clergy character reflect "the kind of respect the world would have for a man like Atticus Finch" (the Gregory Peck role in the much-honored film about growing up in the Deep South). When Peck accepted an Academy Award for his portrayal of the attorney who wins freedom for a black man accused of murder, the actor adjudged 1962's best singled Walker out for his contribution to the film.
Walker liked to boast that he had served the guild "the whole time (former President) Ronald Reagan was (SAG) president. He and I are speaking cousins." He served from 1951 to 1971 and in 1953, with Reagan at his side, pleaded with a gathering of Hollywood producers to hire more black actors.
Reagan was President of the United States when he honored Walker on behalf of the black press for his role as a doctor in "The Well," a 1951 all-black version of the Kathy Fiscus story. She was the little girl who died while rescuers were trying to pull her from an abandoned well in San Marino.
Walker said he had tried throughout his career to defy racial stereotypes in his pictures.
"I had a lot of arguments with directors. Most of them knew nothing about how a Negro feels, how he lives, what he thinks."
Walker is survived by his wife, Peggy. A funeral service is scheduled Friday at 11:15 a.m. at Riverside National Cemetery.