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Moses Gunn: Five Great Roles

by Linnea Crowther

Moses Gunn was an award-winning actor on stage and screen. In the 1960s he helped expand opportunities for African-American actors when he co-founded the Negro Ensemble Company, which boasts among its alumni notables like Denzel Washington, Sherman Hemsley, Esther Rolle, and Cleavon Little. In his own career, he played iconic roles both big and small, earning an Obie, or Off-Broadway Theater Award, and an NAACP Image Award, as well as nominations for a Tony and an Emmy. From Othello on Broadway to beloved sitcoms like The Cosby Show, Gunn was always a star. Here are a few of our favorite Moses Gunn roles.

1. Bumpy Jonas in “Shaft”

In the first two Shaft movies, Gunn portrayed gang leader Ellsworth “Bumpy” Jonas. Based on real-life mob boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, Jonas was the thorn in the side of the iconic private detective, John Shaft.

2. Kintango in “Roots”

Appearing in two episodes of the acclaimed miniseries Roots, Gunn played Kintango, the leader of a sect in Africa that performed and preserved the rites of manhood. Gunn was nominated for an Emmy for his powerful performance.

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3. Isaac Montola in “Kung Fu”

In the Kung Fu episode “The Stone,” Gunn played Isaac Montola, a freed slave from Brazil. Montola introduced a new fighting style to Kung Fu’s hero, Caine, played by David Carradine.

Caine encounters Issac Montola, a freed slave from Brazil on “Kung Fu” (Getty Images / ABC)

4. Booker T. Washington in “Ragtime”

The 1981 movie musical featured several real-life characters, among them J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, and Booker T. Washington, played by Gunn. He won an NAACP Image Award for his performance—the only award won by a film that was heavily nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes and more.

5. Dr. Lotus on “The Cosby Show”

Gunn played a lot of very serious characters over the years, but his career had its light moments as well. One came when he appeared on The Cosby Show as a “spiritual scientist” who charged a bundle for his dubious services.

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