Clarence Gilyard Jr., a reliable character actor-turned-university professor with memorable roles in Die Hard, Matlock and Walker, Texas Ranger, has died. He was 66.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas — where Gilyard spent over 15 years working as a film and theater professor — announced Gilyard’s death in a statement shared Monday, Nov. 28. No cause of death was given, though Gilyard had reportedly been suffering from a long illness (per the Las Vegas Review Journal).
“He had many extraordinary talents and was extremely well-known in the university through his dedication to teaching and his professional accomplishments,” said Nancy Uscher, dean of the UNLV College of Fine Arts. “He had a national and international following through his celebrated work in the theatre, in film, and television. His generosity of spirit was boundless — he was always ready to contribute to projects and performances however possible.”
Nate Bynum, one of Gilyard’s colleagues, added, “Some may find it surprising to know that Clarence valued his appointment as a university professor as highly, maybe higher, then his illustrious career as a TV star. It was a major goal for him. He loved his UNLV family and, in particular, the students he instructed in his classroom. Gone too soon.”
Gilyard found his way to acting in the late Seventies after a somewhat stuttering start to his 20s. His efforts to kickstart a college athletic career had faltered, and his drinking and drug use got him kicked out of his parent’s house. He found his passion for acting in a college theater course, and when he struck out professionally, the roles came quickly.
He was a series regular on the final seasons of the cop show CHiPs in 1982 and 1983, while he also picked up parts on TV shows like The Duck Factory, 227, and The Facts of Life. He scored his first film roles in 1986, including a small pat as Lieutenant Junior Grade Marcus ‘Sundown’ Williams in Top Gun. In 1988, Gilyard appeared as the criminal computer whiz Theo in the action classic Die Hard.
The following year, Gilyard joined the cast of the popular legal drama Matlock, playing Conrad McMasters, a private investigator for Andy Griffith’s Ben Matlock. After working on the show for several seasons, Gilyard scored his biggest part: James “Jimmy” Trivette, the partner and best friend of Chuck Norris’ Cordell Walker on the long-running procedural Walker, Texas Ranger.
After Walker, Texas Ranger wrapped in 2001, Gilyard stepped away from Hollywood, but not from acting. He went back to school and earned a master of fine arts in theater from Southern Methodist University, and in 2006 he joined the film and theater department at UNLV as an associate professor. While teaching took up most of Gilyard’s time, he eventually returned to professional acting, picking up small roles in various films during the 2010s. Just last year, he reunited with Bruce Willis for a Die Hard-themed commercial that ran during the Super Bowl.