Bill Nunn, a versatile actor best known for playing the role of Radio Raheem, the boombox-toting neighborhood philosopher killed by police officers in Spike Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” died on Saturday in Pittsburgh. He was 63.
His death was announced on social media by Mr. Lee. His wife, Donna, told The Associated Press that Mr. Nunn had cancer.
The first major acting role for Mr. Nunn, the son of a well-known professional football scout, was in the 1988 film “School Daze,” also written and directed by Mr. Lee. The next year brought the critically acclaimed “Do the Right Thing,” in which he played the iconic Radio Raheem, who carries a boombox blaring Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” through the streets of the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn on the hottest day of summer.
Radio Raheem sits at the moral heart of the film, delivering a soliloquy directly to the camera on the ceaseless contest between love and hate, symbolized by the four-finger rings he wears on each hand. The character’s choking death at the hands of police officers in front of a crowd of his neighbors incites the film’s wrenching final scenes.
Mr. Nunn became a popular character actor after “Do the Right Thing” and appeared in a variety of films, including “New Jack City,” “Sister Act” and the “Spider-Man” trilogy by the director Sam Raimi. In 2004 he appeared in a Broadway revival of “Raisin in the Sun” as Bobo, alongside Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad and Sean Combs.
But it was his performance as Radio Raheem that allowed him to make his greatest mark, Mr. Nunn said in an interview with ABC News to mark the 25th anniversary of the film’s release.
He was a frequent collaborator of Mr. Lee and also appeared in his films “Mo’ Better Blues” and “He Got Game.” Mr. Lee referred to him on Saturday as “my dear friend, my dear Morehouse brother.” They both attended Morehouse College in Atlanta.
William Goldwyn Nunn III was born in 1953, in Pittsburgh. His father was Bill Nunn, a scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers who helped build a football powerhouse in the 1970s by recruiting from the often-overlooked football programs at historically black colleges and universities. He died in 2014.
Mr. Lee memorialized Mr. Nunn in a series of social media posts on Saturday, sharing the text of his “Do the Right Thing” soliloquy as well as pictures of him as Radio Raheem.
Radio Raheem. Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It's a tale of good and evil.… https://t.co/eAIyJit3pH
— Spike Lee (@SpikeLee) September 24, 2016
“Long Live Bill Nunn,” Mr. Lee wrote on Facebook. “Radio Raheem is now resting in power. Radio Raheem will always be fighting da powers dat be. May God watch over Bill Nunn.”
On social media, Mr. Lee cited the death of Eric Garner, who died after an officer placed him in a chokehold on Staten Island in 2014, as evidence of the continuing resonance of Radio Raheem’s violent death. In an interview with ABC News in 2014, Mr. Nunn reflected on the death of Mr. Garner, which was captured on video and helped propel a nationwide debate on the treatment of black men by the police.
Much like the character that brought him to fame, Mr. Nunn focused on the need for love.
“You know you’re watching a guy lose his life,” Mr. Nunn said in the interview. “For me, I’m just getting a little tired of watching these mothers on television, these poor mothers grieving their sons and children. It makes me wonder sometimes about where the compassion is.”