He was the son of a noted African-American journalist and grandson of a pioneering football player. In his youth, he served as a Pittsburgh Steelers ball boy who was once took the car of a Pro Football Hall of Famer for a joyride. He was a Morehouse College student, three years ahead of director Spike Lee in school, who ended up appearing in several of the director’s movies. In one of them, he had a death scene that has continued to resonate in the more than quarter century since, and more than ever in recent years.
Bill Nunn acted in nearly 50 movies, including several directed by Lee, and he later appeared as Robbie Robertson in all three of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. But his most notable role was probably that of the doomed, boombox-wielding Radio Raheem in Lee’s 1989 classic Do the Right Thing.
Nunn passed away Saturday at the age of 62, after battling cancer, according to the THR.Nunn is survived by his wife and two children. Lee, his longtime friend and collaborator, announced Nunn’s passing on social media channels Saturday morning.
My Dear Friend, My Dear Morehouse Brother- Da Great Actor Bill Nunn As Most Of You Know Him As Radio Raheem Passed Away This Morning In His Hometown Of Pittsburgh. Long Live Bill NUNN. RADIO RAHEEM Is Now RESTING IN POWER. RADIO RAHEEM WILL ALWAYS BE FIGHTING DA POWERS DAT BE. MAY GOD WATCH OVER BILL NUNN.
Nunn was born in Pittsburgh in 1953. His father, Bill Nunn, Sr., was a journalist with the African-American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier and later became a scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers, specializing in scouting the historically black colleges traditionally ignored by NFL teams. The younger Nunn, as a teenager, worked as a ballboy with the Steelers and once took the car of future Hall of Famer “Mean” Joe Greene for a late-night joyride. Nunn attended one of those historically black colleges, Morehouse College and graduated in 1976.
A big man with a strong screen presence, Nunn began his film acting career 12 years later, appearing in Lee’s first feature film, 1986’s School Daze. He’d go on to appear in three other Lee films, including Mo’ Better Blues and He Got Game.
But it was Do the Right Thing that was Nunn’s most notable role. He played Radio Raheem, the large neighborhood perennial who traveled everywhere with a boombox that was usually blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Sporting brass knuckles reading “LOVE” and “HATE” — a trope with a long, varied cinematic history – Radio Raheem is choked to death by police at the film’s climax, leading to a riot.
The actor’s most known non-Lee roles include Sister Act (1992), Michael Moore’s lone non-documentary film Canadian Bacon (1994), Idlewild (2006), and Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, in which his Robbie Robertson was a Spider-Man loyalist at the Daily Bugle. Nunn’s final role was on the TV series Sirens in 2014 and 2015.