Thomas Jefferson Byrd, actor in Spike Lee films, is killed in shooting

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Thomas Jefferson Byrd, actor in Spike Lee films, is killed in shooting
In this file photo taken on June 21, 2014 US actor Thomas Jefferson Byrd attends the "Spike Lee...Ya Dig!" career retrospective and celebration during the 2014 American Black Film Festival at Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City. US actor Thomas Jefferson Byrd was fatally shot in Atlanta on October 3, 2020 at age 70, US media reported. Mireya Acierto / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP.

by Bryan Pietsch

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Thomas Jefferson Byrd, a Tony-nominated actor also known for roles in various Spike Lee films, was found shot to death on an Atlanta street, authorities said Sunday.

Byrd, 70, was found “unresponsive” by Atlanta police officers, who responded to a call about an injured person at 1:45 a.m. Saturday, said Anthony Grant, a spokesperson for the police. Byrd was pronounced dead of “multiple gunshot wounds to the back,” Grant said.

Craig Wyckoff, Byrd’s friend and former representative, said Sunday that he had spoken with a “circle of friends” who said that Byrd had gotten into an argument with someone at a store and that “that person must have followed him home.” The police said the case was under investigation and declined to confirm that account.

In a series of posts to Instagram, Lee said he was “So Sad to Announce The Tragic Murder Of Our Beloved Brother” and highlighted Byrd’s roles in films like “Clockers” (1995), “Chi-Raq” (2015) and “Bamboozled” (2000).

“Rest In Peace Brother Byrd,” Lee wrote.

Byrd also appeared in the 1996 film “Set It Off” and was nominated for a 2003 Tony Award for his role in a Broadway revival of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” by August Wilson. (A television adaptation is coming to Netflix, starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, who died in August.)

“Loved working with you Byrd,” Davis wrote in a tweet Sunday. “What a fine actor you were. So sorry your life ended this way.”

A review of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in Variety in 2003 hailed Byrd as “a singular pleasure in the role of Toledo, the verbally fastidious piano player who dispenses nuggets of African history and homegrown philosophy.”

“The prim set of Byrd’s mouth and the expressive gymnastics of his eyebrows gently accent Toledo’s more pompous asides,” the reviewer, Charles Isherwood, wrote, “but he brings the right measure of natural gravity to Toledo’s more painfully authentic ruminations.”

Wyckoff said that in recent years, Byrd had started teaching acting as he tried to “get his personal life together” after a set of personal struggles.

Nasser Metcalfe, an actor and a friend of Byrd’s, said he had been “struck by his humility.” At a showing of “Clockers” at a theater in Atlanta before the two met, both actors were in the audience.

It wasn’t a screening, Metcalfe said, “just the 8 o’clock showing at the local multiplex.”

When the film ended, some of the people who had been sitting near Byrd stood up and applauded him. Byrd “very humbly” accepted their praise but did not want the spotlight on himself.

“He appreciated the love, but he didn’t necessarily want to be the center of attention,” Metcalfe said in a phone call Sunday.

In an upcoming film, “Freedom’s Path,” about the Underground Railroad, Byrd plays the role of Abner, a father figure to a group of former slaves.

Information about Byrd’s survivors was not immediately available.

He was born in Florida and raised in Georgia, Metcalfe said.

Byrd graduated from Morris Brown College, a historically Black liberal arts college in Atlanta, with a degree in education. He then attained a master of fine arts in dance from the California Institute of the Arts.

Although Byrd often performed as characters who were rough around the edges — Lee highlighted his role as “The Frightening Character Errol Barnes In CLOCKERS” — he was “the opposite of how he looked,” Wyckoff said, “and the opposite of what he played.”

Later in his life, Byrd “became more introspective,” Metcalfe said.

“He was on a path of spiritual self discovery, so to speak, more so than trying to book the next job,” he said.

But, Metcalfe said, “whenever Spike called, he was there.”

When the two first met at an Atlanta restaurant where Metcalfe was working, Byrd advised him to “just focus on your craft.” In the early 2000s, when Byrd moved to New York for his role on Broadway, the actors lived two blocks from each other in Harlem. They would read through scripts together, he said.

“There was no limit to his generosity,” Metcalfe said. “That’s who the man was.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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