Emmy winner and three-time nominee Reg E. Cathey, best known for his standout work on House of Cards and The Wire, has died at the age of 59 from a reported battle with lung cancer on February 9, 2018. A native of Huntsville, Alabama, Cathey spent his childhood in West Germany. He graduated from J.O. Johnson High School, where he acted in plays such as To Kill a Mockingbird, and subsequently studied theater at the University of Michigan and the Yale School of Drama. Cathey leaves behind a rich legacy of memorable roles in stage, film, and television.
Cathey was an acting legend, of course, a prolific performer who artfully blended character-acting chops with theatrical flair. Though better known for his portrayal of the straight-talking political advisor Norman Wilson on HBO’s The Wire and, more recently, as the once-invaluable-turned-scorned former barbecue restaurateur Freddy Hayes in House of Cards, I will forever remember and elevate Cathey for his role as the formidable and uniquely foul Martin Querns on HBO’s Oz. In an ensemble series blessed with an all-star cast and an ever-revolving door of thespian actors, music artists, comedians, stunt casting, and virtually every actor who’s ever had a role (or multiple roles) on Law & Order, Cathey’s performance as the morally-corrupt but short-lived unit manager of Emerald City stands out amid a climatic mid-season cliffhanger that saw the confrontational end of Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) at the hands of Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker).
Yes, I’m still shook.
There’s always an unsung eloquence to Cathey’s performances. Call it swagger, if you will. He exudes charm and charisma even when playing the worst of characters. His Shakespearean background elevates roles in the same way Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen often add substance and gravitas to the most trivial of material. Cathey was a masterful actor who, strangely to me, believed his career truly took off after 44th U.S. President Barak Obama was elected.
“What I did notice is that Barack Obama becomes president and suddenly black people who are well-spoken are working more,” he said. “This new market for the well-spoken black actor is all due to Obama. He got inaugurated, and I started working like a fiend — hired by the same people who would previously ask: ‘Have you always spoken like that?’ It’s like, you know what, motherfuckers, yes, I have.”
I mean, no lie in Cathey’s truth, but I believe it’s more than that. As an avid consumer of film and television, who used to regard Cathey as “one of those faces”, whose name I could never pinned down but whose face I always recognized from show/movie “A”, “B”, and “C”, it seems more to me that an increasing recognition of his raw talent finally caught up to the fast-paced and unfettered nature of his acting career.
Cathey’s filmography spans a little under three decades. Guest roles abound, with television appearances in everything, including but not limited to Homicide: Life on the Street, Roc, Law & Order, The Good Wife, The Blacklist, and much more. His work within the “geek-o-sphere” includes roles as the mobster Freeze in the film adaptation of The Mask, the Klingon Morag in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a recurring role as necromancing Baron Samedi on Grimm, and Dr. Franklin Storm, father to Sue and Johnny Storm, in the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot. Cathey’s Off-Broadway credits include Hamlet, Love’s Labor’s Lost, and White Chocolate (a performance my sister was lucky enough to see). Cathey can be seen in more recent outings as Chief Bryan Geils on Robert Kirkman’s Cinemax series Outcast and in HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Cathey’s passing is deeply felt by fans and an entertainment industry that has benefited a great deal from his life’s work and achievements.