University of Kansas displays character actor Gunn's career memorabilia

Jon Niccum | 8/27/2008, 6:34 a.m.

He earned an Emmy nomination for his work as an African chief in TV’s “Roots.”

He even joined the cast of the sitcom “Good Times.”

Moses Gunn played a lot of roles. And consequently, he accumulated a lot of stuff.

The University of Kansas department of theater and film recently acquired a collection of memorabilia from the 30-year acting career of the late Gunn, an alumnus of the university. The material was bequeathed by his widow, Gwen Gunn.

“I donated his collection to the university because it was a place he had always admired and because I thought it would receive more tender care than at the Schomberg (Center) or the New York Library at Lincoln Center, both of [which] are overwhelmed with the lives of actors,” Gwen Gunn says.

The performer originally came to Lawrence in 1959 as a graduate student after earning a degree at Tennessee State University, where he won a speech contest that led to a scholarship at KU.

“He got involved in the civil rights politics of the time and didn’t graduate in the ’60s, but was able to come back and finish later (in 1989) with the help of Bill Kuhlke, who was by then head of the theater department and helped devise a program for him,” Gwen Gunn recalls.

The decision to offer the collection to KU was fostered through her relationship with Kevin Willmott, an associate professor of theater and film at the university who had been invited to her house to view the material. The numerous items had been stored in the attic since Moses’ death. When Gwen had announced she was moving, Willmott helped coordinate the donation.

“I was a huge Moses Gunn fan as a kid, growing up seeing him in blaxploitation movies like ‘Shaft,’ and on ‘Good Times,’ all that stuff,” Willmott recalls. “What really struck me was his whole body of work: theater, film, TV. He had such an amazing, well-rounded career. As an African American, there weren’t many of us doing things at the time he was doing it. He was really one of the pioneers in the ’70s to break out and get dignified, positive roles.”

As a thank you for his efforts, Gwen gave Willmott the watch her husband wore in “Shaft.”

“That’s probably my prize possession now,” Willmott says.

Currently, a portion of the Gunn items are on display in the lobby of Murphy Hall.

“We get comments all the time because part of the collection is in the lobby. We’ll have somebody come by and say, ‘Oh, that’s THAT actor,”’ says John Staniunas, chair of the theater and film department.

With the collection still being catalogued, Staniunas hopes to have a more dedicated exhibit ready in February during Black History Month, possibly at the Spencer Museum of Art.

“We’re not sure where the display is going to go, if we’ll take it down or if we’ll offer it to other schools,” he says. “We’re eventually going to try to find a place to house it so people who are interested in Moses’ career can come and study the work.”