NEW YORK — Earle Hyman, best known for his TV role as Bill Cosby's father, says the only place where he is truly recognized as a star is in Norway, a country he loves.
But Hyman is pleased with the reception he's getting on Broadway, where has taken over the role of the chauffeur in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Driving Miss Daisy."
And he says that playing the part of the chauffeur, Hoke Coleman, is one of his favorite roles in 45 years as an actor.
"I'm not leaving unless they fire me," says Hyman, 61. "It's a play that shows pure love coming from the strangest place. It is the mystery of the human heart."
The play, written by Alfred Uhry and set in Atlanta in the years 1948 to 1973, opened in April, 1987. Hyman followed the original Hoke Coleburn, Morgan Freeman, in February. Frances Sternhagen had taken over the role of Miss Daisy from Dana Ivey in January. Ray Gill, the only other member of the cast, continues to play Miss Daisy's son.
"Frances and I get entrance applause once or twice a week," Hyman says. "It's heartwarming. I come from a time in the theater when there were stars and we always applauded when they made their entrances."
Only 287 people a night can be seated in the John Houseman Theater to watch Hyman play Hoke, but he's seen by millions in his TV appearances on "The Cosby Show."
His earnings from television enabled Hyman to buy a house in Norway, where he frequently appears on the stage.
"The only place I'm a star in the true sense of the word is Norway," he says. "There they come to see me and hope the play is all right. I'm the only foreign actor and only black actor who performs in both Norwegian languages."
Hyman says that the first time he took a vacation, during his five years at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., he visited Scandinavia. He wound up staying the entire three weeks in Norway, the home of his longtime lady friend.
"The first time I stepped on that soil I fell in love with it," he says. "I felt I'd been there before."
In Norway, Hyman met the grandson of Henrik Ibsen, the famous dramatist, who introduced him to theater people.
Hyman was born in Rocky Mount, N.C. His parents, both schoolteachers, moved to Brooklyn so their four children could be educated in the North.
"I was the only black boy in the school," he recalls. "The pressure was awful; I had nowhere to hide. I'm glad I managed to be the best. I had a photographic memory. I'd read things twice and I knew it."
Hyman's father became assistant to the city parks commissioner and designed the landscaping in Prospect Park and at the Planetarium.
"It's very moving today for me to go look at those trees," Hyman says.
"Then the Depression came along and he was fired. He thought it was because he was black. I'm sure he was right. It hurt him. He became bitter about it, which is worse than being hurt, and he kind of gave up.
"Down times came and we moved to poorer and poorer houses and apartments. It pushed me straight into theater."
On his 13th birthday, Hyman took his girlfriend to see his first professional play, Ibsen's "Ghosts."
"I rushed to the library the next day and read all of Ibsen's plays," he says. "My interest in Norway started there. I went to the theater every week. Twenty-five cents it cost to sit in the second balcony."
He attached himself to Mercedes Gilbert Black, who played in "The Green Pastures."
"I haunted her house," Hyman says. "She sort of adopted me, gave me pointers. There were no jobs for black actors."
Then a radio producer called the actress one day while Hyman was there. He needed someone to play George Washington Carver as a boy. Black told Hyman, then 16, to speak, pitching his voice high to sound like he was 7. He got the job, but the producer was startled when in walked a 6-foot-4 teen-ager.
Hyman added an "e" to his first name, Earl, and in 1943 was offered a walk-on part in "Run, Little Chillun!" on Broadway.
It lasted two weeks but led to his appearance in the American Negro Theater's "Three's a Family."
Hyman decided to stay in show business after appearing in the American Negro Theater's "Anna Lucasta." "This time we came down to Broadway to stay and stay," he says.
"Driving Miss Daisy" will be made into a movie, but Hyman doesn't think he'll get the role because he hasn't done many feature films.
"I really wish I'd done more movies," he says. "Dore Schary offered me a featured role in 'Something of Value,' starring Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier. I turned it down. I felt I couldn't do it well. . . . Sometimes in this business it isn't too good to be too honest with yourself.
"I turned down a few other roles in movies because I love the theater so much. What snobs we theater actors can be."