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.