Robert (Bobby Dean) Hooks
by Dale Ricardo Shields
Creator Cultural Institutions
Creator/Co-creator Civil Right Organizations
Born Bobby Dean Hooks into the rat-infested Foggy Bottom of segregated Washington, DC in 1937, a product of the post-Depression Northern Migration, the story of Robert Hooks’ life, in many ways, characterizes the turbulent growing pains of an America which are still struggling to come to terms with its racial history.
Robert Hooks has had a distinguished career as an actor, producer, and political activist. A celebrated and recognizable performer who was repeatedly chosen to break the color barrier in all media before the term “colorblind casting” even existed, Mr. Hooks was instructed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to never forget that artists were an integral and vital part of the struggle for civil rights. That mandate has shaped his existence and career.
He has founded three significant Black theatre companies: New York’s Group Theatre Workshop, the post-riots DC Black Repertory Company in his hometown, and the internationally recognized Negro Ensemble Company. Born as a consequence of Hooks’ first producing venture—a double-bill of Douglas Turner Ward’s Happy Ending and Day of Absence—the NEC was the most important enterprise of its kind, launching the careers of many of our major Black artists in all disciplines.
“My mother remarried in 1954, and we moved to Philadelphia and I went to my first integrated high school: West Philadelphia High School, where I really started acting. Philadelphia was a tryout town for Broadway, and I would go see these plays. Most of the plays I saw were all White plays with no Black characters. But then came “A Raisin in the Sun” on its way to Broadway. It blew my mind. I was in tears just wanting to be on that stage because it had Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett Jr. — they were all there. I made up my mind. I wanted to be a professional actor. Instead of going to Temple University, a few months later I was in New York.
I replaced Lou Gossett in the play, and I met Douglas Turner Ward and Lonnie Elder, who were actors but mainly playwrights. So I met these guys as they were writing plays while we went on the road on the national tour. That’s how I really got into understanding the structure of theater and the structure of plays and what made them work. That’s where the whole idea of bringing theater to the Black community came from — in every city that we went, Black people who had never seen a Black play came and were just so enthusiastic. We saw the potential of black audiences in every city.” – WASHINGTON POST [ Roxanne Roberts 2018]
Robert Hooks-Vintage Reel of an American Cultural Architect
A 15 min. vintage highlight reel examining the career of Actor/Producer/ Director and co-Founder of the internationally esteemed Negro Ensemble Company Robert Hooks. From stage to screens large and small this is a vivid look at a man who broke color barriers, helped change the racial makeup of American arts, and – politically -worked in front and behind the scenes to enlarge and then protect those rights of access.
Its nurturing of Black playwrights over the course of three decades created a body of performance literature that comprises the backbone of the African-American theatrical canon and provided nuanced vehicles for Black performers until August Wilson picked up the baton.
As a young actor in Philadelphia, it was seeing A Raisin in the Sun in tryouts both stunned and awakened him to what was possible. Almost immediately, he packed his bags and moved to Manhattan where, in a scene reminiscent of a 1930’s Stage Door musical, he was soon hired for that same original Broadway production A Raisin in the Sun! He then segued into the lead role in Jean Genet’s long-running, politically incendiary play The Blacks (alongside Maya Angelou, Roscoe Lee Browne, Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Adolph Caesar, Raymond St. Jacques, Charles Gordone, and Godfrey Cambridge), followed shortly afterward by inaugurating the male lead in Leroi Jones’ provocative two-character piece, Dutchman produced by Edward Albee. The next decade brought a series of Broadway shows, among them Arturo Ui, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More, A Taste of Honey, and Hallelujah Baby, for which he garnered a Tony nomination for Lead Actor in a Musical.
Off-Broadway he broke theatrical color barriers when Joseph Papp cast him in the title role of Henry V, a first in theatre history.
In television, the groundbreaking David Susskind-produced N.Y.P.D. was the first prime-time network drama to feature a Black male lead. In addition to two highly-acclaimed mini-series, Backstairs at the White House and Sophisticated Gents, Robert has appeared in over 150 productions for the small screen. And when television producers realized that John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage had no Black heroes it was Robert they invited to star in the hastily added episode Young Frederick Douglas. Films have included Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown, Tennessee Williams’ Last of the Mobile Hotshots, Passenger 57 (directed by his son Kevin Hooks), Star Trek III, and the title role in the uncomfortably political cult hit Trouble Man, making him the original “Mr. T.”
His active stance in politics cost him some jobs but engendered continuing requests for him to speak publicly. He’s been invited to speak in front of the House-Senate Committee both on his own and, in 1973, in the company of Sidney Poitier, Maya Angelou, Brock Peters, Bernie Casey, and Terry Carter regarding the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act. He served as the opening speaker for then-President Bill Clinton, was feted by future AMPAS President Jack Valenti at the Nixon White House.
Widely recognized for his contributions to theatre, film, and television, Mr. Hooks has won a Producing Emmy Award for his PBS special Voices of Our People; a New York Drama Critics Award for A Raisin in the Sun, and the World Annual Award for Where’s Daddy? He has been nominated for a Tony for his lead role in the musical Hallelujah, Baby, and has also been presented with both the Pioneer Award and the NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement and been inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
To cite Herbert Allen, a Chicago-based television producer, in his paper, Robert Hooks: Intergenerational Visionary & Institution Builder, written in 2007 on the occasion of yet another Lifetime Achievement Award:
“It is time to acknowledge Robert Hooks as a resource of guiding vision for the African American presence in theater, now and in the future. Contemplating the philosophical and sociopolitical underpinnings of Hooks’ gift and commitment to institution building, and in revisiting Hooks’ accomplishments, it becomes clear that he should be actively treasured as a resource today. His is the kind of historic vision that informs the present and gives direction for the future.“
“I’ve done eight Broadway shows. You will never meet an actor who has done eight Broadway plays. I was doing play after play; Tennessee Williams…. I was being directed by the greats. When a role came up, producers would say, “Can we get Robert Hooks for this?” I was very fortunate. I was the busiest actor in New York City; this is just how it went down for me.”
Born: April 18, 1937 ( age 78 ), Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C.
Spouse: Lorrie Marlow (m. 2008)
Kevin Hooks, Eric Hooks, Christopher Michael Carter, Cecilia Ann Hooks Onibudo, Kiyo Dean Tarpley Hooks, Robert (Rob) Hooks, Jr.
Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical
Robert Dean (Bobby) Hooks is an African-American actor in films, television, and stage. With a career as a producer, theatre builder, and political activist to his credit, he is most recognizable to the public for his over 100 roles in films and television.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY ROBERT [ 2020 ]
Slide Presentation by Dale Ricardo Shields
DCN Presents: The Robert Hooks Story
Parents: Edward Hooks and Bertha Hooks
The youngest of five children, Hooks was born in Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C., the son of Bertha (née Ward), a seamstress, and Edward Hooks, who worked on the railroad tracks, where he died.
Robert Hooks is regarded, variously, as a gifted artist who has broken color barriers on stage, film, and television. A leading man when there were few African American matinee idols. He originated roles on the New York stage in such classics as Dutchman, A Taste of Honey, and Where’s Daddy? for which he won the Theatre World Award. He was the first African American male lead on a television drama, the original N.Y.P.D.
In 1968, Hooks was the host of the new public affairs television program, Like It Is.
Famously, Hooks, along with Douglas Turner Ward, founded The Negro Ensemble Company (NEC). He then brought Gerald Krone in as Production Manager. The NEC is credited with the launch of the careers of many major Black artists of all disciplines, while creating a body of performance literature over the last thirty years, providing the backbone of African-American theatrical classics. This important theater company has produced plays by Charles Fuller, Wole Soyinka, Peter Weiss, Derek Walcott, Samm Art Williams, Leslie Lee, and Joseph A. Walker, and many others.
Additionally, Hooks is the sole founder of two significant Black theatre companies: the DC Black Repertory Company, and New York’s Group Theatre Workshop, which was created to mentor the talents of New York’s disadvantaged youth. He brought in Dr. Barbara Ann Teer to help teach classes and develop the workshop.
“Saturday morning classes were held in the living room of my Chelsea apartment (circa 1964.) The Kurt Vonnegut quote, the James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, poems and many other Black literary materials ‘lit up’ the excitement of these workshop sessions at our new Group Theatre Workshop.
“All of it was informal (as you can see here! where I guess I should have been standing front and center ) but Oh! so vitally important to the young wannabee thespians getting the chance to show their talents. Everything was free to those New York youngsters who wanted to learn the art of acting and of the new and burgeoning Black theatre movement!”
Robert Hooks was nominated for a Tony Award for his lead role in the musical, Hallelujah, Baby!, has received both the Pioneer Award and the NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement, and has been inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. He also won an Emmy Award for his PBS special Voices of Our People.
He passed down his passion for acting to two of his sons, Kevin Hooks, and Eric Hooks. Kevin Hooks is also a film director, and cast his father in two of his films: Passenger 57 (1992) and Fled (1996). Eric Hooks is an actor, known for Sounder (1972) and Just an Old Sweet Song (1976).
Significant roles for which Robert is known, include Reeve Scott in Hurry Sundown (1967), Mr. T. in the blaxploitation film Trouble Man (1972), grandpa Gene Donovan in the comedy Seventeen Again (2000), and Fleet Admiral Morrow in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). He also appeared on television in an episode of the NBC crime drama series The Eddie Capra Mysteries in 1978 and portrayed Doctor Walcott in the 1980s television series Dynasty.