Chadwick Boseman wasn’t an overnight success. Like many actors, he performed in various roles for a decade — mostly in television — before his big break came, playing baseball icon Jackie Robinson in the 2013 movie “42.”
From there, though, the actor — who died Friday after a battle with colon cancer — crammed a lifetime of iconic roles into a brief span, a premature loss made more tragic by the thoughts of where his career might have gone in the years ahead.
Playing Marvel’s Black Panther in that movie and a trio of other films obviously elevated Boseman’s profile. But he surrounded that superhero role with signature dramatic ones as historical characters, and was clearly well on his way to translating his popularity into the kind of multifaceted and enduring career that few actors achieve.
Not every hero wears a cowl or cape, as Boseman demonstrated via a filmography defined his ability to find the humanity in larger-than-life figures. In addition to “42,” he starred in “Get On Up,” playing singer James Brown in a biography chronicling his rise from poverty to stardom; and “Marshall,” portraying future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall earlier in his courtroom career and fight for justice.
In portraying the latter, he joined Sidney Poitier, Laurence Fishburne and Danny Glover on the list of actors who appeared as Marshall on screen.
Recent movies reflected the breadth of his resume. Boseman played a small but pivotal role in director Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” a Netflix film that uses a treasure hunt to contemplate the experience of African-American soldiers during the Vietnam War.
In a lighter vein, he produced and starred in the action vehicle “21 Bridges,” with a production team that included “Avengers” directors Joe and Anthony Russo.
Still to come, meanwhile, is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” an adaptation of August Wilson’s acclaimed play set in the 1920s, with Viola Davis as the blues singer of the title and Boseman portraying a musician.
An early preview of the film — which is being positioned by Netflix among its year-end award contenders — was canceled after word of Boseman’s death, Variety reported.
Amid the outpouring of tributes, Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang noted that Boseman “coaxed forth heroes and legends from the pages of fiction and history alike.” Disney chairman Robert Iger not only lauded Boseman’s body of work, but mourned “all that he was, as well as everything he was destined to become.”
In a 2017 interview, Boseman said that he hadn’t consciously sought out roles steeped in cultural significance, but he possessed the qualities that could breathe life into such legendary characters, whether they came from history books or comic books.
Boseman’s landmark work in those Marvel blockbusters will be played and replayed across the years. Yet his more modestly scaled forays into America’s past represent an equally rich part of his legacy, in a way that further cements his place in that history.