Bill Cobbs, prolific and sage character actor, dies at 90

NEW YORK (AP) — Bill Cobbs, the veteran character actor who became a ubiquitous and sage screen presence as an older man, has died. He was 90.

Cobbs died Tuesday at his home in the Inland Empire, California, surrounded by family and friends, his publicist Chuck I. Jones said. Natural causes is the likely cause of death, Jones said.

A Cleveland native, Cobbs acted in such films as “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Bodyguard” and “Night at the Museum.” He made his first big-screen appearance in a fleeting role in 1974's “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three." He became a lifelong actor with some 200 film and TV credits. The lion share of those came in his 50s, 60s, and 70s, as filmmakers and TV producers turned to him again and again to imbue small but pivotal parts with a wizened and worn soulfulness.

Cobbs appeared on television shows including “The Sopranos," “The West Wing,” “Sesame Street” and “Good Times.” He was Whitney Houston's manager in “The Bodyguard” (1992), the mystical clock man of the Coen brothers' “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994) and the doctor of John Sayles' “Sunshine State” (2002). He played the coach in “Air Bud” (1997), the security guard in “Night at the Museum” (2006) and the father on “The Gregory Hines Show."

Cobbs rarely got the kinds of major parts that stand out and win awards. Instead, Cobbs was a familiar and memorable everyman who left an impression on audiences, regardless of screen time. He won a Daytime Emmy Award for outstanding limited performance in a daytime program for the series “Dino Dana” in 2020.

Wendell Pierce, who acted alongside Cobbs in “I'll Fly Away” and “The Gregory Hines Show,” remembered Cobbs as “a father figure, a griot, an iconic artist that mentored me by the way he led his life as an actor," he wrote on the social media platform X.

Wilbert Francisco Cobbs, born June 16, 1934, served eight years in the U.S. Air Force after graduating high school in Cleveland. In the years after his service, Cobbs sold cars. One day, a customer asked him if he wanted to act in a play. Cobbs first appeared on stage in 1969. He began to act in Cleveland theater and later moved to New York where he joined the Negro Ensemble Company, acting alongside Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.

Cobbs later said acting resonated with him as a way to express the human condition, in particular during the Civil Rights Movement in the late '60s.

“To be an artist, you have to have a sense of giving,” Cobbs said in a 2004 interview. “Art is somewhat of a prayer, isn't it? We respond to what we see around us and what we feel and how things affect us mentally and spiritually.”