André De Shields capped a 50-year acting career by scoring his first Tony Award on Sunday, winning best featured actor in a musical for his role as Hermes in “Hadestown.”
It’s been a long time coming. The 73-year-old performer has worked on Broadway, off-Broadway, in regional theater and on film and television.
In accepting his award, De Shields shared his three cardinal rules for longevity: One, surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming. Two, slowly is the fastest way to get where you want to be. And three, the top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing, he said.
De Shields’ two prior Tony nominations were in 1997 for “Play On!” and in 2001 for “The Full Monty.” In 2007, De Shields won an Obie Award for sustained excellence in performance.
But there’s much, much more to De Shields’ storied career. Some highlights.
His break came with ‘The Wiz’
De Shields grew up in Baltimore, the ninth of 11 children. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he made his professional debut in the 1969 Chicago production of “Hair.”
In 1975, De Shields starred in his breakout role: the title character in “The Wiz,” the Broadway black retelling of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” “The Wiz” ran for more than 1,600 performances and won seven Tony Awards, including best musical. De Shields’ role was later reprised by Richard Pryor in the 1978 film and Queen Latifah in the live NBC TV special in 2015.
His work on Broadway spans five decades
De Shields starred in the original cast of the Fats Waller musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a tribute to black musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, which premiered on Broadway in 1978. It’s a role he revived in 1988, and in 2018 De Shields directed and choreographed the show for a 30th anniversary run in New Jersey.
The performer’s first Tony nomination was for “Play On!” — a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” featuring Duke Ellington’s music. He received another Tony nomination in 2001 for “The Full Monty,” the musical adapted from the British film about unemployed steel workers who make money with an unlikely strip-tease act. Among his co-stars: Patrick Wilson.
De Shields’ other Broadway credits include 2009’s “Impressionism” and the short-lived “Prymate” in 2004.
He’s worked Off-Broadway and in regional theaters too
De Shields other New York-area shows have included a Melting Pot Theatre production of Neil Simon’s “The Good Doctor” and “Let Me Sing” at the George Street Playhouse. His regional theater work includes “The Fortress of Solitude” in Dallas and “King Hedley II” in Washington, DC.
He does more than act
De Shields is a director, choreographer and educator. He choreographed two Bette Midler musicals in New York — her Christmas show in 1973 and 1975’s “Clams on the Half Shell Revue.”
During the 1970s, De Shields was also something of a cabaret king, creating six theatrical concerts including “Have You Ever Been Kissed by Lightning?” and “Black by Popular Demand,” a show he brought back in 2012.
He has taught at New York University, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and Southern Methodist University in Texas.
He also has an Emmy Award
In 1982 De Shields picked up an Emmy for his performance as the Viper in the NBC special “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
Other TV and movie appearances include the NBC comedy “Lipstick Jungle” in 2008, HBO’s “Sex and the City” in 2002 and the Michael Apted film “Extreme Measures” in 1996.
But it will be his Tony and his work in theater for which De Shields likely will always be best known. In an interview with the Daily Beast, De Shields described the subtle yet rampant racism he faced as a black performer in the industry.
“Broadway has come around to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but it’s come around after we dragged them screaming and kicking,” he said.
“The Great White Way is not called that for racial reasons, but because many years ago it was electrified and it appeared as if it were daylight all the time. But it’s a marvelous metaphor if you want to discuss racism, because for so many generations we of color have been taught this is an inhospitable environment.”