William Byrd Wilkins, an actor who was prominent in the Twin Cities in the 1990s before leaving to perform in Alaska, London and New York, has died after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He succumbed at a hospice in Raleigh, N.C., on Oct. 31, not far from Louisburg, N.C., where he was born, according to family and friends. He was 50.
Wilkins was the youngest of seven children born to the late Herman Wilkins, who maintained athletic fields at Louisburg College, and health aide and factory worker Ruby Wilkins. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1987, planning a career on stage and screen.
But there were not many opportunities to practice his craft in his home state. Shortly after seeing St. Paul-based Penumbra Theatre’s 1991 production of Sam Kelley’s “Pill Hill” at the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., he moved to the Twin Cities.
Wilkins quickly found roles at, among others, Pangea World and the old Cricket theaters. Then he got onstage at Penumbra.
“Byrd wanted to be a part of us, but he wasn’t ready at first so he studied and watched us for two years until he fit right in,” said theater founder Lou Bellamy, who directed Wilkins and acted alongside him in many shows at Penumbra.
Wilkins worked with Marion McClinton, James A. Williams, Ralph Remington, Sha Cage and a host of other Twin Cities personalities. His memorable roles at Penumbra include playing Boy Willie, a brother who wants to sell a family heirloom to fund a land-buying scheme, in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.”
“He’s the best Boy Willie I’ve ever seen and August loved him too,” said Bellamy. “He had that physicality, that bulkiness, like Charles Dutton [who played the part on film], but more than that. Because Byrd had studied us, studied our style, he had the rhythms down and understood the give-and-go of jazz acting. Byrd was a really good dude.”
After leaving the Twin Cities, he performed in Alaska, New York and London. He also made appearances on-screen, playing a bouncer in the 1998 Minnesota-shot comedy “Overnight Delivery” and a crack dealer in the 2006 film “Running Scared,” which starred Paul Walker.
He memorably played a preacher in an episode of the British TV science fiction series “Doctor Who,” titled "A Town Called Mercy."
At the end of his career, he returned to his home area. He taught drama at Louisburg College in the past few years, giving of himself and reaching out to friends even as his health failed. A few weeks before he died, Wilkins called Bellamy to thank him for the role he’d played in his career and life.
Wilkins is survived by his mother, Ruby H. Wilkins, sister Rosa W. Johnson and two brothers, the Rev. Jordan Wilkins and Harry L. Wilkins, all of North Carolina. Funeral services will be held Saturday in Louisburg.
“He was my baby, and the fourth one to go,” Ruby Wilkins said Monday. “I loved to see him act onstage. He was always playing people we know, like his daddy or his brother or uncle. He was always bringing our family up there with him.”