Bill Gunn (writer)

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Bill Gunn
BornWilliam Harrison Gunn
July 15, 1934
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
DiedApril 5, 1989 (aged 54)
Nyack, New York
OccupationWriter, director, actor
NationalityUnited States

William Harrison Gunn (July 15, 1934 – April 5, 1989) was an American playwright, novelist, actor and film director. His 1973 cult classic horror film Ganja and Hess was chosen as one of ten best American films of the decade at the Cannes Film Festival, 1973.[1][2][3] In The New Yorker, film critic Richard Brody described him as being "a visionary filmmaker left on the sidelines of the most ostensibly liberated period of American filmmaking."[4] Filmmaker Spike Lee had said that Gunn is “one of the most under-appreciated filmmakers of his time.”[5] Gunn's drama Johnnas won an Emmy award in 1972.[6]


A native of Philadelphia, Gunn wrote more than 29 plays during his lifetime. He also authored two novels and wrote several produced screenplays. In 1950, Gunn studied acting with Mira Rostova in New York's East Village.[5] In 1954, he played a role in the Broadway production of The Immoralist with James Dean. Along with Dean, he joined a social circle that included Montgomery Clift, Eartha Kitt, and Marlon Brando.[7] Gunn shared a house in Nyack, New York with Sam Waymon, brother of singer Nina Simone, who also wrote the musical score for Ganja and Hess.[8] He was also an advocate and friend of filmmaker and writer Kathleen Collins, playing a role in her film Losing Ground.[7] He died aged 54 from encephalitis at a Nyack, New York hospital the day before his play, The Forbidden City opened at the Public Theater in New York City.[9]



  • Marcus in the High Grass (1959) - produced in New York City by Theatre Guild.
  • Johnnas (1968) – produced in New York City at Chelsea Theatre.
  • Black Picture Show (1975) – produced in New York City at Vivian Beaumont Theater.
  • Rhinestone (musical; based on novel Rhinestone Sharecropping) (1982) – produced in New York City at Richard Allen Center.
  • Family Employment (1985) – produced in New York City at The Public Theater.
  • The Forbidden City (1989) – produced in New York City at The Public Theater.
  • Also author of Celebration (1967) – produced in Los Angeles at Mark Taper Forum.[5]


  • Fame Game (1968), Columbia Pictures.
  • Friends (1968), Universal Studios.
  • Stop (1969), (never released), Warner.
  • (With Ronald Ribman) The Angel Levine (1970) (adaptation of novel by Bernard Malamud), United Artists.
  • Don't the Moon Look Lonesome (1970) (adaptation of novel by Don Asher), Chuck Barris Productions.
  • The Landlord (1970) (adaptation of novel by Kristin Hunter), United Artists.
  • Ganja and Hess (1973), Kelly-Jordan Enterprises, re-edited and released under title Blood Couple, Heritage Enterprises.
  • The Greatest: The Muhammad Ali Story (1976), Columbia.

Television screenplays[edit]

  • Johnnas (1972), National Broadcasting Company (NBC).
  • The Alberta Hunter Story (1982), co-writer w. Chris Albertson-never completed – Southern Pictures (UK).


  • All the Rest Have Died (1964), Delacorte (New York, NY).
  • Rhinestone Sharecropping (1981), Reed, Cannon, ISBN 0-918408-19-9, ISBN 978-0-918408-19-8.

Filmography (as director)[edit]

Year Film Credit
1970 Stop director
1973 Ganja & Hess

... aka Black Evil ... aka Black Vampire (USA: video title) ... aka Blackout: The Moment of Terror ... aka Blood Couple (cut version) ... aka Double Possession ... aka Vampires of Harlem

1980 Personal Problems director

Filmography (as actor)[edit]

Year Film Role
1957 Crossroads Roy
unknown Look Up and Live (TV series) George
1961 Route 66 Hank Plummer
Naked City (TV series) Al Norbert
1962 The Defenders (TV series) Frank Reilly
The Interns (TV series) Rosco (uncredited)
Stoney Burke (TV series) Bud Sutter
1963 Stoney Burke (TV series) Toby
The Outer Limits (TV series) Lieutenant James P. Willowmore
1964 The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (TV series) Namana
Dr. Kildare (TV series) Jesse Kamba, MD
1965 The Fugitive (TV series) Avery
1966 Penelope Sergeant Rothschild
1973 Ganja & Hess George Meda
1982 Losing Ground Victor
1986 The Cosby Show (TV series) Homer (2 episodes)


  1. ^ Harris, Brandon (March 31, 2010). "Bill Gunn Surfaces at BAM", Filmmaker Magazine. Retrieved February 18, 2011.
  2. ^ Gunn, Bill (May 13, 1973), "To be a Black Artist'." The New York Times (1923-Current file), p. 121.
  3. ^ Frederick, Candice (April 28, 2016). "Bill Gunn: An Unsung Hero of Black Filmmaking". The New York Public Library. Retrieved August 8, 2018.
  4. ^ Brody, Richard (August 16, 2016), "The Front Row: Ganja & Hess", New Yorker. Conde Nast.
  5. ^ a b c Ryfle, Steve (Fall 2018). "The Eclipsed Visions of Bill Gunn". Cineaste (4): 26–31.
  6. ^ Fraser, C. Gerald (Friday, April 7, 1989), "Bill Gunn, Playwright and Actor, Dies at 54 on Eve of Play Premiere", The New York Times, section D, p. 20 of the New York edition. Retrieved March 24, 2009.
  7. ^ a b "Gunn, Bill." Mitchell, Verner D, and Cynthia Davis, eds. Encyclopedia of the Black Arts Movement. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. p. 147-148.
  8. ^ Batson, Bill (12 February 2013). "Nyack Sketch Log: Sam Waymon Lived Here". Nyack News and Views. Retrieved 6 March 2019.
  9. ^ West, Malcolm R., ed. (April 24, 1989). "Playwright Bill Gunn, 59, dies on eve of premiere". Jet. Chicago, Illinois: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc. 76 (3): 53.

Further reading[edit]

  • Anderson, Melissa. "In Two Urgent Reprints, Bill Gunn Fights for His Singularity", Village Voice, December 29, 2015.
  • David, Marlo D. "'Let It Go Black': Desire and the Erotic Subject in the Films of Bill Gunn", Black Camera 2.2 (2011): 26–46.
  • "Gunn, Bill." Mitchell, Verner D, and Cynthia Davis, eds. Encyclopedia of the Black Arts Movement. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. p. 147-148.
  • Ostrom, Hans. "Bill Gunn," in Hans Ostrom and J. David Macey (eds), The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature, Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishers, 2005. Volume II, 683.
  • Tate, Greg. "Bill Gunn, 1934–89." Village Voice, April 25, 1989. Vol. 34, Iss. 17, p. 98.
  • Williams, John. "Bill Gunn (1929–1989): A Checklist of His Films, Dramatic Works and Novels." Black American Literature Forum. 25.4 (1991): 781- (7p).

External links[edit]