With his commanding stature and distinct voice, any time Bernie Casey appeared in a movie scene, he left others in his shadow. From blaxploitation films like Cleopatra Jones to even comedies like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, Casey’s acting career ran the gamut. After a career that spanned more than 40 years, Casey, who was born in West Virginia and raised in Columbus, Ohio, died from an undisclosed illness Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 78.
Before even stepping foot in Hollywood, Casey was an accomplished athlete, going from playing for Bowling Green University to playing in the NFL for eight seasons. Casey’s athletic prowess would also eventually prove to be an asset on-screen.
Most people will immediately bring up Casey’s role as Tamara Dobson’s love interest in 1973’s Cleopatra Jones as his first foray into film, but before that, Casey teamed up with another legendary football player, Jim Brown, in ...tick...tick...tick... and Black Gunn, and his first film in 1969 was a Zapata-style Western, Guns of the Magnificent Seven.
Casey’s acting career, which involved feature films and television shows, had him starring opposite many Hollywood heavyweights. In the 1981 film Sharky’s Machine, he teamed up with Burt Reynolds as a detective; he joined Reynolds again in the 1987 film Rent-a-Cop.
Even though he also appeared in films like Never Say Never Again, Revenge of the Nerds and Spies Like Us, most people may not even realize that Casey also set a precedent when he starred in NBC’s first sitcom centered on a black family. In 1979, Casey played Mike Harris in Harris and Company, a short-lived series about a widower who moves his family from Detroit to Los Angeles. Although the series aired for only four episodes, it’s safe to say that it gave NBC the blueprint to rehash the black family sitcom with The Cosby Show years later.
Of course, many people will remember Casey from his role in Keenen Ivory Wayans’ 1988 film I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, but Casey was also an accomplished painter and poet who received praise from the great Maya Angelou. He also received an honorary doctorate from the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he served as chairman.
“Casey has the heart and the art to put his insight on canvas, and I am heartened by his action. For then I can comprehend his vision and some of my own. His art makes my road less rocky, and my path less crooked,” Angelou said in 2003.
It’s safe to say that Casey was a Renaissance man, and his legacy will live on forever in his art and filmography.