William Marshall, 78; Actor Played Roles From ‘Blacula’ to ‘Othello’

Times Staff Writer

William Marshall, an actor of stage, screen and television who played a wide variety of roles, from “Othello” in the Shakespearean play to “Blacula” in the camp movie classic, and who appeared in such popular television series as “Star Trek” in the 1960s and “The Jeffersons” in the 1980s, has died.

For the last several years, Marshall had Alzheimer’s disease. He died in a Los Angeles rest home Wednesday. He was 78.

Marshall was born in Gary, Ind., and 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.


He brought a number of prominent African American figures to the stage, including the legendary singer Paul Robeson and the statesman Frederick Douglass. For the role of Douglass, he spent 15 years on research and played the famed abolitionist on stage and television.

His one-man show, “Enter Frederick Douglass,” toured Los Angeles and several other cities in the early 1990s. He appeared in the KCET-TV Channel 28 special, “Frederick Douglass, Slave and Statesman,” as part of Black History Month in 1983.

“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.”

Through his career, Douglass was not the only role that Marshall returned to again and again. He played Othello, the Moorish king in Shakespeare’s tragedy, in Europe and the U.S. During one London production, he was hailed as “the best Othello of our time” by the London Sunday Times.

Later in his career, he turned to another character, this one quite a different type. He played the lead in the 1972 movie “Blacula” and appeared in a sequel, “Scream, Blacula, Scream!” in 1973. Even as the unconventional count, Marshall brought dignity to the role. Originally the character was conceived as bumbling and dimwitted. “I had no wish to be part of that exploitation,” Marshall told The Times in 1991.

Marshall saw the potential for a dignified variation on the original Count Dracula, the tormented Eastern European royal in Bram Stoker’s 19th century novel. The movie producers re-imagined their “Blacula” and made him an African prince touring Europe. Marshall then agreed to play the part.

His more serious movie appearances included supporting roles in “Demetrius and the Gladiators” (1954) with Victor Mature and Susan Hayward; and “Something of Value,” (1957) starring Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier. He appeared in several dozen films overall.

While he received steady recognition for bringing black history and heritage to the stage and to television, Marshall won two local Emmy awards in 1974 for “As Adam Early in the Morning,” based on works by Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Richard Wright and Billy Strayhorn. He won for his work as the producer and actor in the one-man show about life as a journey.

A regal figure who was 6 feet, 5 inches tall, Marshall spent five of his early professional years in Europe, performing in classic theater. He appeared in several dramas by Henrik Ibsen, including “When We Dead Awaken” and “Enemy of the People,” as well as various Shakespeare plays, during his long career.

He also taught acting workshops on college campuses, including UC Irvine, and at the Mufandi Institute in Watts. He was director of the institute in the 1960s.

Marshall is survived by three sons and one daughter. His life partner of 42 years, Sylvia Jarrico, said a memorial service will be held this summer.