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University Mourns Legendary Theater Educator

Acclaimed artist James Spruill dead at 73

| From BU Today | By John O'Rourke

James Spruill, a retired CFA associate professor, in 1998. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

To say that James Spruill, a retired College of Fine Arts associate professor of theater arts, was a renaissance man would be an understatement. Over the course of a five-decade career, Spruill, who died of pancreatic cancer on December 31 at age 73, made his mark as an actor, a director, and a leader in the African American theater community. But he is being remembered today first and foremost as an impassioned, dynamic educator—a man who taught and mentored generations of theater majors at BU.

“Jim Spruill was unfiltered, provocative, nurturing, challenging, and, most of all, devoted to his students and the art of teaching acting,” recalls Nina Tassler (CFA’79), a BU trustee and president of CBS Entertainment. “I remember always feeling secure in his class; he allowed us to be daring and encouraged us to take risks.”

Spruill (CFA’75) came to Boston as an actor in the mid ’60s, joining the Theater Company of Boston, a young company that included Paul Benedict and Stockard Channing. Decades later, Spruill would recall, “I knew I wasn’t going to Hollywood to make black exploitation movies, so I decided I needed a teaching credential.” He enrolled in the School of Theatre to pursue an MFA in directing in 1968, the same year the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) was assassinated. He was the first person to receive the Martin Luther King, Jr., Fellowship, established by BU trustees to honor King’s ideals and awarded annually to an outstanding African American graduate student.

In his first year at BU, Spruill cofounded, with fellow actor Gus Johnson, the New African Company, a Boston-based theater company that continues to operate today. For more than four decades, the company has mounted the work of African American playwrights on stages across Boston, as well as in schools, colleges, prisons, and hospitals. Part of their motivation in founding the company, Spruill said, was to give African American actors a reliable showcase to display their talents.

In 1976, Spruill joined the CFA faculty, and over the next three decades taught classes in acting, directing, theater history, and literature. He retired in 2006. William Lacey, a CFA professor emeritus of theater, voice, speech, and acting and former director of the School of Theatre, was Spruill’s graduate thesis advisor. Lacey says Spruill brought an extraordinary sensitivity to his work as a teacher.

“Many speak of the dignity of the individual,” says Lacey, “but few passionately give themselves over to the means of instilling and nurturing that dignity in the young. Jim understood the frightful adolescence that many confronted and sought to open doors. He did so in his teaching as well as through community action.”

James Spruill in the title role of a 1980 CFA production of Othello, with actor Jason Alexander (CFA’81, Hon.’95) (right).

Upon learning of Spruill’s death, former students were quick to recall both his talent on stage and his gift for mentoring. Tony Award–winning actor Jason Alexander (CFA’81, Hon.’95), who appeared with Spruill in a BU production of Othello in 1980, fondly remembers his former teacher. “Jim was particularly kind and supportive of me while I was at BU,” Alexander says. “His focus and critique were the most practical and transformative of any I was privy to during my training there.” Alexander says Spruill was an “odd, passionate, kind, dedicated man and artist. I would like to think he has made a profound impression on many of his students and fellow artists.”

Gregg Ward (CFA’82), another student who shared the stage with Spruill in Othello, recalls that Spruill was “mesmerizing” in the title role. “He made an incredibly powerful impression on many,” he says.

In addition to his many performances in Boston theater, Spruill appeared on television, including in an acclaimed PBS version of Richard Wright’s Native Son, and in several movies, among them the Steven Spielberg (Hon.’09) film Amistad. He also had roles in several films made by his son, Robert Patton-Spruill (CAS’92, COM’94), including Squeeze and Body Count.

Over the course of his distinguished career, Spruill received many accolades, including the prestigious Eliot Norton Award. In 2003, he was honored with CFA’s Distinguished Faculty Award.

Speaking of his longtime friend and former colleague, Lacey recalls a man who “loved a theater that was generous and full-blooded, if nuanced, and went for it in his work.”

Plans for a celebration of James Spruill’s life are under way and will be posted on CFA's website when available. Remembrances may be sent to his son, Robert Patton-Spruill, 88 Lambert Ave., Boston, MA 02119.

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On 19 January 2011 at 10:37 AM, Mark Lomas (CFA'95) wrote:

Jim Spruill was an amazing professor, coach, & one of my very favorite teachers at B.U. He helped to instill in me such confidence & feeling of safety & security to push the limits & really go for it. He was a warm affectionate man with big beautiful smile a husky resonate gentle voice & a fantastical robust laugh. I will be forever thankful for the values & principles he taught me & for the kindness he gave me. Rest in peace sweet Jim, you will not soon be forgotten ! My heart & love goes out to all his family, it is such a great loss. May you find some comfort in knowing your father was so beloved!

On 17 January 2011 at 5:18 PM, Ray Martin (CAS) wrote:

RIP Jim Spruill, I was fortunate to be one of many high school teens who had the opportunity to be taught by Jim in the 60's. We were taught acting skills and so much more about life. We performed plays at the now Berklee Perfomance Center, and around the New England area. God Bless Jim and keep him on your bosom.

On 15 January 2011 at 8:51 PM, Brenda J. Davis (CFA'74) wrote:

What a generous, insightful and inspiring man he was. I had the privilege of being directed by Jim Spruill in the early 70s. It was a blessing. He was remarkably talented, and so capable of sparking great confidence and creativity in those with whom he worked.

On 14 January 2011 at 5:39 PM, Colleen Stanton Cassidy (CFA'79) wrote:

I was one of the few students to enjoy Jim's passion both at Emerson College and BU. He was a delight and an inspiration, lots of energy in that man. My thoughts are with his family...

On 14 January 2011 at 2:52 PM, Ann Howell (CAS'81) wrote:

I was one of the few students to enjoy Jim's passion both at Emerson College and BU. He was a delight and an inspiration, lots of energy in that man. My thoughts are with his family...

On 14 January 2011 at 1:28 PM, James Nardella (CFA'99) wrote:

I was blessed to have Jim as both an advisor and an acting teacher. Like many other students, I can say he had an awesome impression on me. I always felt he had the confidence to compliment and encourage us wholeheartedly without fearing that building us up would take away from our reverence for him. He also never feared calling it like he saw it, which is what he will always be known for. The honest advice he gave me during meetings we had over sandwiches in his office is still practical in my life now. Thank you Jim.

On 14 January 2011 at 7:43 AM, Elvine Topac (CAS'93) wrote:

James Spruill was a wonderful teacher, a wise friend, witty and thoughtful mentor, and most importantly an amazing artist. One felt safe in his presence, he was humble in his art, one of a kind, humorous, gentle and kind. Even the shyest of students felt comfortable on stage, and they found their voice. Thank you Prof. Spruill, for your time, energy and for all the confidence you had in us and for all the confidence and mastery you bestowed on us. Thank you. God Bless.

On 14 January 2011 at 4:42 AM, Bruce Fine (SMG'88) wrote:

I was fortunate to take my electives in SFA and James Spruill was my first acting teacher. He was just awesome with our "Acting for Non-Majors" class and really opened our eyes to acting and life. A special man, RIP, and peace and sympathy to your family. Bruce Fine

On 13 January 2011 at 9:20 PM, Sherry Dobbin (CFA'91) wrote:

When Jim Spruill pushed you, it was to force you to respect your own potential. He knew when the work was good, but still short of your abilities. He called on you to be honest; whether as a performer, director or audience member. He released so many of us into becoming verbal audience members without shame. Who will ever forget the sounds of Jim in your audience? In a profession often based upon facades, Jim was sincere, present and passionate; qualities that serve you on and off stage.

On 13 January 2011 at 6:37 PM, Motez Bishara (CAS'87) wrote:

RIP Jim Spruill, I was just thinking about your acting classes today. I have a fantastic time and learned a great deal about both the craft of acting and life under your tutelage. I fondly remember those warm ups... 'make my funk the p-funk, i want to get funked up...' My sincerest condolences to the Spruill family. God bless, Motez

On 13 January 2011 at 5:01 PM, Phyllis (CAS'87) wrote:

I'm so sorry to hear of the loss of Jim Spruill. He was such a supporter of my work and always encouraged me to take risks in my work. What a loss to the BU community and to the large community of people who were able to experience just a little bit of his light. RIP Jim.

On 13 January 2011 at 3:28 PM, Greg Gellis (SMG'91) wrote:

As a business major, I reluctantly took an acting class my senior year as I was finishing up. However, to this day, Jim Spruill has made a profound impact on my life and career. His guidance, methods and enthusiasm were key components in shaping my profession. Anyone who knew Jim will never forget him.

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