As Nov. 29 marks what would have been Chadwick Boseman‘s 44th birthday, fans continue to mourn his devastating death in August after a secret four-year battle with colon cancer. But although his career and life were tragically cut short, the actor’s iconic on-screen body of work — and his incredible deeds off-screen — will undoubtedly be remembered forever.
Boseman was raised in Anderson, South Carolina, and attended college at Howard University in Washington, D.C. before attending New York City’s Digital Film Academy. The talented actor received assistance from famous mentors along the way, including The Cosby Show star Phylicia Rashad — who was one of his teachers at Howard — and Denzel Washington, who paid for Boseman and a few of his Howard classmates to attend the Oxford Mid-Summer Program of the British American Drama Academy in England, to which they had been accepted.
Washington talked about Boseman in September when he participated in a virtual panel alongside filmmaker Barry Levinson at the Toronto International Film Festival, sharing that he shed a tear when he watched Black Panther for the first time. He remembered Boseman as a “gentle man.”
“A very, very gentle soul,” he said. “A great talent, obviously.”
The two ended up working together on Boseman’s final film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which Boseman starred in and Washington produced.
“Who knew he didn’t have much life left? But he didn’t get cheated. We did,” Washington said. “I pray for his poor wife and his family, they got cheated. But he lived a full life.”
Rashad also referred to Boseman as “gentle” in an interview with ET in October.
“I remember his smile and his gentle way,” she said. “I remember his unending curiosity and his love of study, studying many things all of the time. When I look back on his body of film work, and I have been able to see quite a bit of it in these last few weeks, it never ceases to amaze me how very different he is in each and every role. And the differences are subtle. They are not sweet rolled, they are not manipulated, they are not contrived. He presents a real person and persona in every character he plays.”
She later recalled how happy he was about helping others.
“When he came to New York, after graduating from Howard University, one day he called me all excited, ‘Oh, Ms. Rashad, you will never guess what I am doing,'” she recalled, noting that she initially thought he’d landed a big Broadway gig. “You know what he was doing? He was working with young people at the library and he was excited about it. That’s who Chadwick was.”
Boseman wrote and directed multiple plays and eventually moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, where he landed television roles on All My Children, Law & Order, Cold Case, CSI: NY, and ER. Even at the start of his career, Boseman was thoughtful in choosing the type of roles he played. Last January, he told The Wrap’s Oscar magazine that he was fired from his 2003 role as Reggie on All My Children — a gang member adopted by Erica Kane (Susan Lucci) and her husband, Jackson Montgomery (Walt Willey) — after he raised concerns about playing racial stereotypes. Interestingly enough, the role was recast with his future Black Panther co-star and close friend, Michael B. Jordan.
“I remember going home and thinking, ‘Do I say something to them about this? Do I just do it?’ And I couldn’t just do it,” Boseman said of his moral dilemma at the time. “I had to voice my opinions and put my stamp on it. And the good thing about it was, it changed it a little bit for [Jordan]. They said, ‘You are too much trouble,’ but they took my suggestions, or some of them. And for me, honestly, that’s what this is about.”
But his big break came with 2013’s 42, in which he portrayed baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson. Robinson was just one of many iconic real-life legends Boseman went on to play. In 2014’s Get Up, he played singer James Brown, and in 2017, he portrayed Thurgood Marshall — the first African American Supreme Court Justice — in the biographical film Marshall.
Though of course, Boseman would become best known for playing T’Challa in 2018’s Black Panther. In September, director Ryan Coogler said in a heartfelt statement that Boseman always had clear thoughts on how he wanted to portray the character, including his accent.
“I learned later that there was much conversation over how T’Challa would sound in the film,” Coogler shared. “The decision to have Xhosa be the official language of Wakanda was solidified by Chad, a native of South Carolina, because he was able to learn his lines in Xhosa, there on the spot. He also advocated for his character to speak with an African accent, so that he could present T’Challa to audiences as an African king, whose dialect had not been conquered by the West.”
“When preparing for the film, he would ponder every decision, every choice, not just for how it would reflect on himself, but how those choices could reverberate,” he continued. “‘They not ready for this, what we are doing… This is Star Wars, this is Lord of the Rings, but for us… and bigger!’ He would say this to me while we were struggling to finish a dramatic scene, stretching into double overtime. Or while he was covered in body paint, doing his own stunts. Or crashing into frigid water, and foam landing pads. I would nod and smile, but I didn’t believe him. I had no idea if the film would work. I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing. But I look back and realize that Chad knew something we all didn’t. He was playing the long game. All while putting in the work. And work he did.”
Coogler talked about Boseman’s decision to keep his cancer battle a secret.
“Chad deeply valued his privacy, and I wasn’t privy to the details of his illness,” he shared. “After his family released their statement, I realized that he was living with his illness the entire time I knew him. Because he was a caretaker, a leader and a man of faith, dignity and pride, he shielded his collaborators from his suffering. He lived a beautiful life. And he made great art.”
Director Spike Lee also said Boseman didn’t tell him he was battling cancer when he directed him in Da 5 Bloods, which was released in June on Netflix.
“I didn’t know Chad was sick. He did not look well, but my mind never took that he had cancer. It was a very strenuous shoot,” Lee told Variety. “I mean, we all didn’t get to Vietnam until the end of the movie at Ho Chi Minh City. But that other stuff, the jungle stuff, was shot in Thailand. It was 100 degrees every day. It was also at that time the worst air pollution in the world.”
“I understand why Chadwick didn’t tell me, because he didn’t want me to take it easy,” he continued. “If I had known, I wouldn’t have made him do the stuff. And I respect him for that.”
After the shocking news of his death, Boseman’s incredible off-screen gestures quickly came to light — gestures that he never wanted attention for. In September, Sienna Miller revealed that he used his own salary to boost hers when they worked on 2019’s action-thriller 21 Bridges. Miller said that when the studio wouldn’t give her the salary she asked for to work on the big-budget movie, Boseman stepped up.
“I said, ‘I’ll do it if I’m compensated in the right way.’ And Chadwick ended up donating some of his salary to get me to the number that I had asked for,” she said. “He said that that was what I deserved to be paid.”
Miller called the gesture the “most astounding thing” she’d ever encountered.
“That kind of thing just doesn’t happen. He said, ‘You’re getting paid what you deserve, and what you’re worth.’ It’s just unfathomable to imagine another man in that town behaving that graciously or respectfully,” the actress said. “In the aftermath of this I’ve told other male actor friends of mine that story and they all go very, very quiet and go home and probably have to sit and think about things for a while. But there was no showiness, it was, ‘Of course I’ll get you to that number, because that’s what you should be paid.'”
After his death, it also became clear that helping young cancer patients was extremely important to Boseman. A 2018 SiriusXM interview he gave got renewed attention, in which he got emotional recalling a conversation he had with two boys with terminal cancer about how excited they were to see Black Panther.
“There are two little kids, Ian and Taylor, who recently passed from cancer. Throughout filming, I was communicating with them knowing that they were both terminal,” Boseman shared. “What they said to me, and what their parents said, [was] they’re trying to hold on ’til this movie comes.”
“To a certain degree, you hear them say that and you’re like, ‘Wow, I gotta get up and go to the gym, I gotta get up and go to work. I gotta learn these lines, I gotta work on this accent,'” he continued. “You’re like, ‘This can’t mean that much to them,’ but seeing how the world has taken this on, seeing how the movement and how it’s taken on a life of its own, I realized that they anticipated something great.”
Recalling how as a kid he also waited for Christmas or his birthday to come to get a certain toy or an experience, he noted that he did “live life waiting for those moments.” He then started to tear up and paused trying to collect himself.
“It means a lot,” he emotionally said.
In September, Black Panther executive producer Nate Moore revealed his touching final text with the actor, in which it was evident that the actor was still thinking of others up until his final days. Boseman and Moore had been working together to help young cancer patients through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“It was during lockdown, and we worked together to get a young boy a voice note from T’Challa, as well as a package of toys — no easy feat when we weren’t allowed to leave our homes or go to the office,” Moore told People. “But Chad figured out how to make it work because he cared so intently, and in hindsight, so personally.”
Moore shared his final text from the actor, which read, “It broke me, man, but we need to do that for them. People deserve abundant life, special moments. They’ve been through hell battling disease. If we were able to ease their suffering and bring joy for a moment, and hopefully moments as he goes through the bags, then we made a difference in his life.”
Moore noted, “Again, hindsight will tell us that Chad felt that way because he too was battling a disease. But I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s just who he was as a man. A leader and a caregiver first, who accomplished both of those things as a performer and as a regular person.”
As private as Boseman was about both his cancer battle and good deeds, he was not surprisingly just as private about his personal life. In his family’s statement about his death, it was revealed that he had married his now widow, Taylor Simone Ledward.
“He died in his home, with his wife and family by his side,” the statement revealed.
The couple was first linked in 2015, though Boseman never commented on his relationship with the California State Polytechnic University graduate, who majored in music studies and served as the lead singer of the school’s jazz band. Ledward did accompany Boseman to a number of high-profile red carpets, and he publicly thanked her at the 2019 NAACP Image Awards, when he won the award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture for his performance as King T’Challa.
“Simone, you’re with me every day,” he said. “I have to acknowledge you right now. Love you.”
Ledward was shown mouthing “I love you” back as she blew him a kiss from the audience.
Clearly, Boseman was beloved by not just his wife and family, but his co-stars and close friends, and he received an incredible outpouring of emotional tributes after his death. Boseman was particularly close to Jordan, who played Black Panther villain Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. Back in 2018, Jordan spoke to ET about his special relationship with Boseman.
“I knew we’re tied together to a certain degree, forever,” Jordan said of their Black Panther characters. “It’s like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, because these two characters are essentially two sides of the same coin.”
Jordan also talked to ET about how Boseman made things better for him after he stepped into the Reggie role on All My Children.
“I’m younger than Chad, and I was coming into All My Children fresh off The Wire — wide open, still learning,” he recalled. “I was playing this role not knowing that a lot of the things I was going through were because of what he’d already done for me. It’s hard to speak in the moment about how things we do can affect other people. But this is a pure example, right here on the spot — we ain’t never talked about this before a day in our lives — to understand how what people do now can directly affect what other people do in the future.”
In a heartfelt tribute to Boseman in August, Jordan noted, “One of the last times we spoke, you said we were forever linked, and now the truth of that means more to me than ever. Since nearly the beginning of my career, starting with All My Children when I was 16 years old you paved the way for me. You showed me how to be better, honor purpose, and create legacy. And whether you’ve known it or not… I’ve been watching, learning and constantly motivated by your greatness.”
“Everything you’ve given the world … the legends and heroes that you’ve shown us we are … will live on forever,” he continued. “But the thing that hurts the most is that I now understand how much of a legend and hero YOU are. Through it all, you never lost sight of what you loved most. You cared about your family, your friends, your craft, your spirit. You cared about the kids, the community, our culture and humanity. You cared about me.”
In Lupita Nyong’o’s own moving tribute to her Black Panther love interest, she recalled his supportive nature.
“He showed up to every rehearsal and training and shoot day with his game face on,” she shared. “He was absorbent. Agile. He set the bar high by working with a generosity of spirit, creating an ego-free environment by sheer example, and he always had a warm gaze and a strong embrace to share. His large hands would descend on my shoulders and give them a squeeze that relieved me of the tensions I did not realize I was holding. Chadwick’s hands were strong enough to carry the weight of the film and free enough to clasp mine when I needed it.”
“He was fueled by love, not fear,” she continued. “He moved quietly, deliberately and without imposing himself or his ideas on others. And yet he also made damn sure that his life meant something. He cared so deeply about humanity, about Black people, about his people. He activated our pride. By pushing through and working with such high purpose in the films he chose to commit to, Chadwick has made the infinite his home. We are all charged by his work as a result, by his presence in our lives. His power lives on and will reverberate for generations to come.”
Viola Davis, who worked with him on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, noted of Boseman to InStyle magazine, “He was a beautiful man and a great artist. It’s like what Issa Rae said: ‘He was ours as African Americans.’ He was someone who had a quality that very few have today, whether young or old, which is a total commitment to the art form of acting. Regardless of ego, regardless of any of it.”
“He was with the same agent he had when he started his career,” she added, before noting how much he did not enjoy the perks of fame. “And when you were with him on the set, he absolutely did not want celebrity treatment. He hated that. He really did. We actually had a little discussion about that. He said, ‘Viola, I don’t mind the work. I don’t mind all the hours. It’s the other stuff that exhausts me.’ He hated the celebrity part.”
Meanwhile, Boseman’s Marshall co-star, Josh Gad, openly shed tears while remembering Boseman.
“There aren’t words to express what an amazing human being Chadwick Boseman was,” Gad shared with his Instagram followers in an emotional video. “You come upon people in your life who are next level good. This was a man who was beyond talented and was so unbelievably giving, not only as a performer, but as a human being. Beyond just being Black Panther, Chadwick was T’Challa in real life. He was somebody who just gave and gave and gave. He never stopped giving. 2020 has been so devastating for so many reasons. This one hurts because it’s taking away somebody who is honestly one of the greats. I don’t know how to process this but I want to send my love to his entire family and to all the fans out there. He’s gonna be missed.”
Gad later shared one of Boseman’s touching final texts to him, which urged him to appreciate every moment. Boseman’s text began by discussing the then Los Angeles forecast for non-stop rain, and he at first lamented being stuck indoors in quarantine due to the weather.
“But now that the rain has stopped and today’s storm has cleared, I urge you to step outside and take a DEEP breath,” Boseman wrote. “Notice how fresh the air is right now, after our skies have had a 3 week break from the usual relentless barrage of fumes from bumper to bumper LA commuters, and now today’s rain has given the City of Angels a long overdo and much-needed shower.”
Urging his friend to relish the moment, Boseman added, “Thank God for the unique beauties and wonders of this day. We should take advantage of every moment we can to enjoy the simplicity of God’s creation, whether it be clear skies and sun or clouded over with gloom.”
For more on Boseman’s life and legacy, watch the video below.
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