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University Relations

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Feb. 29, 2008
Contact: Charla Jenkins, Department of Theatre and Film, (785) 864-2684.

Actor’s memorabilia donated to KU Department of Theatre and Film

LAWRENCE — Memorabilia from the 30-year acting career of University of Kansas alumnus Moses Gunn has been donated to the KU Department of Theatre and Film by his widow, Gwen.

John Staniunas, chair of the department, said the collection now is being catalogued and that he hopes to unveil it in February 2009, during Black History Month, with an exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art.

More than 20 boxes of materials were received in late January. Included were theater, movie and television posters, awards and photographs.

“Moses Gunn was an important African-American actor who did groundbreaking work in all genres: theater, film and television,” Staniunas said. “It is important for our students — and especially the African-American students — to see the success of someone who worked very hard in the theatrical field. Not only does the collection celebrate Moses’ life and career, but it also opens up possibilities for theatrical scholars to visit and use the collection.”

Staniunas credits Kevin Willmott, associate professor of theatre and film at KU, with arranging for the donation of the collection. Willmott met Gunn’s widow and learned the actor had intended to donate his memorabilia to KU. Since Gunn’s death in 1993, his widow has kept the collection in her home, but she is moving and wanted “a safe place” for the collection. Staniunas arranged for the collection, which he described as “priceless and irreplaceable,” to be shipped to KU.

In looking through the collection, Willmott commented that Gunn was one of the premiere African-American actors of his generation.

“He was there when the ‘breakthroughs’ happened,” Willmott said. “His ties to KU and Kansas are to be celebrated.”

A native of St. Louis, Mo., Gunn graduated from Tennessee State University, where he won a speech contest leading to an offer of a scholarship at KU. He attended KU as a graduate student in theatre from 1959 to 1961. While a student, he acted in productions of “Tartuffe” and “Auntie Mame” and directed an original production, “The Trial of Captain John Brown.” He left the university to teach at Grambling College in Louisiana, but the lure of New York City became too strong.

Gunn didn’t finish his degree work until he returned to KU in spring 1989. While on campus, Gunn received the Department of Theatre and Film’s second “Buddy Award” and starred in the University Theatre production of “I’m Not Rappaport.”

A co-founder of the celebrated Negro Ensemble Company, Gunn made his Broadway debut with the company in 1962 in Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” and distinguished himself in many of their productions, notably “Titus Andronicus” and “The First Breeze of Summer.” Gunn was a formidable Obie award-winning stage player and was nominated for a 1976 Tony Award as best actor in a play for “The Poison Tree.” In 1985, he performed in Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” during the inaugural season at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and received an NAACP Image Award as best supporting actor.

He also was known for his Shakespearean performances with the Yale Repertory Theatre and the New York Shakespeare Festival; he played Othello on Broadway, Cominus in “Coriolanus” and Randolph in a production of “King John” in Central Park, part of the New York Shakespeare Festival. He also co-starred in South African playwright Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot” and “My Children, My Africa.”

An authoritative black character actor in films and TV, Gunn’s many film credits include “WUSA,” “Hot Rock,” “Wild Rovers,” “Rollerball,” “Shaft,” “The Great White Hope” and “Leonard IV.” He played Booker T. Washington in the 1981 movie “Ragtime,” a performance that won him another NAACP Image Award. His last major film was Clint Eastwood’s “Heartbreak Ridge” in 1986.

On television, he co-starred with Avery Brooks on “A Man Called Hawk” and appeared on “Good Times,” “Little House on the Prairie,” “Father Murphy,” “The Cosby Show,” “Equal Justice” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” He was nominated for an Emmy Award for his portrayal of African chief Kintango in the first installment of ABC’s groundbreaking miniseries “Roots” and for “Of Mice and Men.” On PBS, he was featured in “The Killing Floor,” “The House of Dies Drear” and “Charlotte Forten: Experiment in Freedom.”

Gunn died at his home in Guilford, Conn., in December 1993 from complications from asthma.

Some of the donated items:

— Bronze art sculpture with base-Ivory Tower from “The NeverEnding Story”
— Sculpture of Moses' head made for creating his elongated head in “The NeverEnding Story”
— NAACP Image Award for Best Supporting Actor for “Fool for Love,” 1986
— Signed poster from Clint Eastwood of “Heartbreak Ridge”
— Framed Henry Fonda poster of “The Trail of A. Lincoln”
— Framed poster of “The Blacks”
— American Theatre Fellow medal
— Emmy Award nomination plaque for “Roots”
— Antionette Perry (Tony) Award Nomination for Best Actor in a Play, 1975-76
— Village Voice Off-Broadway (Obie) Award for Distinguished Performance, 1967-68 and 1974-75
— Black Film Makers Hall of Fame plaque
— Mask from role of Aaron in “Titus Andronicus” for New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park


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