Billy Harden, co-founder of Spectrum Theatre Company, died Tuesday of colon cancer. He was 64.
An Austin actor, producer and educator, Harden appeared in many shows with Spectrum, Zach Theatre and various permutations of Austin Playhouse.
“(I’m) wrecked today at the loss of Billy Harden,” Lara Toner Haddock, artistic director of Austin Playhouse, said Tuesday. “I met Billy when I was 12 years old and for 30 years he served as an unparalleled example of kindness and integrity. … I’m grateful to have known him and so saddened by his loss.”
Harden earned a doctorate in educational leadership and served as a teacher, instructional coach and administrator. He was former head of school at Goodwill Industries’ charter school and assistant principal at the Austin school district’s Alternative Learning Center.
He retained vivid memories of desegregation and closure of African-American secondary schools in East Austin during the 1970s.
“Many parents felt the best and most experienced African-American educators were taken to the predominately white schools and the less experienced teachers were assigned by design to the minority schools mostly located in East Austin,” Harden told this American-Statesman in 2016. “Parents were also upset the burden of desegregation was now solely on the shoulders of the African-American community because they lack alternative educational resources. This single event changed the course of East Austin for good and thus changed the inner core of African-American culture forever as it existed in Austin.”
Often playing gruff but kindly characters, Harden had attracted notice on the stage by the 1980s. Among his most memorable performances were in multiple stagings of “I’m Not Rappaport” with fellow actor Tom Parker. Other standouts included roles in “Porgy and Bess,” “Purlie,” “Spunk,” “Our Town,” “The Gospel at Colonus,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Two Trains Running,” “The Exonerated,” “Five Guys Named Moe” and many more.
“Billy was such as sweet soul,” actor Felicia Dinwiddie said. “And so talented and surely he will be missed. … He has taken his final bow into the hands of the Lord.”
During the last years of his life, Harden served as executive director of Spectrum, Austin’s leading African-American theater company, founded by Harden with stage veterans Jacqui Cross, Janis Stinson and Carla Nickerson.
“There’s an old gospel song that says, ‘May the work I’ve done, speak for me,’” Stinson said. “Although Billy is now safe in the arms of Jesus, his works will continue to speak. I will truly miss my dear friend of 33 years. We have shared the stage many times, often cast as husband and wife. In fact, Billy would sometime introduce me as his ‘stage wife.’ So as your friend, castmate and stage wife, I say, ‘Take your rest my friend.’”
He is survived by his mother, Ada Harden, brother, Roosevelt Harden Jr., and sisters Marilyn Harden and Anita Davis. Visitation will be 4-7 p.m. April 13; his funeral is 11 a.m. April 14. Both will be at Metropolitan AME Church, 1101 E. 10th St., where Harden served as minister of music.