Calarts Campus

Thomas Jefferson Byrd (1950-2020)

Thomas Jefferson Byrd (Dance MFA 82), Tony-nominated character actor and frequent Spike Lee collaborator, tragically passed away on Oct. 3, 2020, after being shot in Atlanta. He was 70.

Byrd was born in Griffin, Ga., a southern suburb of Atlanta. He earned a Bachelor of Science in education at Morris Brown College, followed by a Master of Fine Arts at The Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance at CalArts. Byrd went on to play roles in many of Lee’s films, including Clockers (1995), Girl 6 (1996), Get on the Bus (1996), He Got Game (1998), Bamboozled (2000), Red Hook Summer (2012), Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), and Chi-Raq (2015). 

Byrd also had a regular role in Lee’s Netflix dramedy She’s Gotta Have It, which was based on Lee’s 1986 black-and-white film of the same name, as well as in John Carcieri and Jordan Peele’s Netflix comedy The Last OG.

In addition to film and television, Byrd held numerous theater credits, often performing on regional and off-Broadway stages. He was regularly cast in August Wilson plays, including The Piano Lesson (San Jose Repertory Theater, 2001), Seven Guitars (St. Louis Black Repertory Company, 2002), and Gem of the Ocean (Actors Theater of Louisville, 2006). 

Byrd also performed in a 2011 revival of Alice Childress’ play Trouble in Mind (Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater), in which his character delivered a provocative monologue after witnessing a lynching. In an interview with fellow castmates about the production, he spoke of his interest in roles that defied stereotypes Black actors were often relegated to portraying. 

“We as African American people take serious issue with how we’re portrayed because that big screen is very powerful,” said Byrd. Of stereotypical roles, he added, “I take serious issue with that because of how I’m being represented, how my children will be represented, how my grandparents were represented.”

Byrd was nominated for a 2003 Tony Award as Best Actor for his performance as the introspective pianist Toledo in the Broadway revival of Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In a 2003 Variety review of the play, Charles Isherwood described Byrd’s performance as a “singular pleasure”:

The prim set of Byrd’s mouth and the expressive gymnastics of his eyebrows gently accent Toledo’s more pompous asides, but he brings the right measure of natural gravity to Toledo’s more painfully authentic ruminations.
“Tom Is My Guy,” Lee stated in an Instagram post shortly after Byrd’s passing. “May We All Wish Condolences And Blessings To His Family. Rest In Peace Brother Byrd.”