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 is 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. Its nurturing of black playwrights over the course of three decades created a body of performance literature which 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 of…yes…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 Joe Papp cast him in the title role of Henry V, a first in theatre history.
In television, t he 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 which informs the present and gives direction for the future."