Hudsucker Proxy, Night at the Museum, Air Bud Actor Was 90

Bill Cobbs, the convincing character actor who had pivotal turns in such films as The Hudsucker ProxySunshine State and Night at the Museum, has died. He was 90. 

Cobbs died Tuesday night of natural causes at his home in Riverside, his publicist, Chuck I. Jones, told The Hollywood Reporter.

A native of Cleveland who excelled at comedy as well as drama, Cobbs portrayed Whitney Houston’s manager in The Bodyguard (1992), the older brother of Medgar Evers in Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), a jazz pianist in Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do! (1996) and the Master Tinker, builder of the Tin Woodsman, in Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful (2013). 

He also played the wise coach who put a basketball-playing dog into the Timberwolves lineup in Air Bud (1997).

On television, Cobbs stood out as the sardonic bartender The Dutchman on the Dabney Coleman-starring The Slap Maxwell Story, the bus driver Tony on The Drew Carey Show, the title character’s dad on The Gregory Hines Show and Dr. Emory Erickson, the inventor of the Transporter, on Star Trek: Enterprise.

In the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Cobbs portrayed Moses, the mystical clock man whose ability to stop time comes not a moment too soon for Tim Robbins’ Norville Barnes.

In John Sayles’ Sunshine State (2002), Cobbs provides a moral compass as a doctor who strives to save his seaside Florida neighborhood from developers. (Earlier, the actor and filmmaker worked together in the 1984 sci-fi comedy The Brother From Another Planet.)

Cobbs set the plot in motion as Reginald, the security guard on the verge of retirement, in Night at the Museum (2006). He returned for the 2014 sequel.

Wilbert Francisco Cobbs was born on June 16, 1934. After graduating from East Tech High School in Cleveland, he served for eight years in the U.S. Air Force, where he experimented with stand-up comedy. He worked for IBM and sold cars before he acted onstage for the first time in 1969 in the anti-apartheid musical Lost in the Stars at Karamu House in his hometown.

He quickly followed with roles in Ossie Davis’ Purlie and Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author at the venerable Cleveland theater.

Cobbs headed east a year later and joined the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, working with the likes of Davis, Ruby Dee, Adolph Caesar and Moses Gunn. “Once I realized I could walk on the stage with people like that, I thought, ‘Maybe I can be an actor,’” he recalled in 2015.

Alongside Caesar and Esther Rolle, Cobbs appeared off-Broadway in 1971’s Ride a Black Horse and then in Black Visions for the Joseph Papp Public Theater.

For his big-screen debut, he showed up on a subway platform in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974).

“I came back home to see my mom and dad, and all our friends and neighbors went to see the movie, and everyone was waiting for my appearance,” he said in 2013. “I walk up to a policeman in the subway and say, ‘Hey, man. What’s goin’ on?’”

He then understudied on Broadway in Black Picture Show and The First Breeze of Summer in 1975.

Cobbs’ film résumé also included Greased Lightning (1977), Trading Places (1983), The Cotton Club (1984), The Color of Money (1986), New Jack City (1991), The Hard Way (1991), The People Under the Stairs (1991), Demolition Man (1993), Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995), Hope Floats (1998), A Mighty Wind (2003), Three Days to Vegas (2007), Get Low (2009) and The Muppets (2011).

Cobbs also was a regular on Sam Waterston’s I’ll Fly AwayThe Michael Richards Show, Julianne Nicholson’s The Others and Matthew Perry’s Go On, and he guest-starred on many other series, from The EqualizerKate & Allie and The Sopranos to Six Feet Under and Yes, Dear.

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