LOS ANGELES (AP) — First Chadwick Boseman slipped on the cleats of Jackie Robinson, then the Godfather of Soul's dancing shoes, portraying both Black American icons with a searing intensity that commanded respect. When the former playwright suited up as Black Panther, he brought cool intellectual gravitas to the Marvel superhero whose "Wakanda forever!" salute reverberated worldwide.
As his Hollywood career boomed, though, Boseman was privately undergoing "countless surgeries and chemotherapy" to battle colon cancer, his family said in a statement announcing his death at age 43 on Friday. He'd been diagnosed at stage 3 in 2016 but never spoke publicly about it.
The cancer was there when his character T'Challa visited the ancestors' "astral plane" in poignant scenes from the Oscar-nominated "Black Panther," there when he first became a producer on the action thriller "21 Bridges," and there last summer when he shot an adaptation of a play by his hero August Wilson. It was there when he played a radical Black leader — seen only in flashbacks and visions — whose death is mourned by Vietnam War comrades-in-arms in Spike Lee's "Da 5 Bloods."
"A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through it all, and brought you many of the films you have come to love so much," his family said. "It was the honor of his career to bring King T'Challa to life in Black Panther." Boseman died at his home in the Los Angeles area with his wife and family by his side, his publicist Nicki Fioravante told The Associated Press.
Boseman is survived by his wife and a parent and had no children, Fioravante said.
Born and raised in South Carolina, where he played Little League baseball and AAU basketball, Boseman graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C. He wrote plays, acted and directed in theater and had small roles in television before landing his breakthrough role.
His striking portrayal of the color-line-demolishing baseball star Robinson opposite Harrison Ford in 2013's "42" drew attention in Hollywood and made him a star. A year later, he wowed audiences as Brown in the biopic "Get On Up."
Boseman died on a day that Major League Baseball was celebrating Jackie Robinson day. "His transcendent performance in '42' will stand the test of time and serve as a powerful vehicle to tell Jackie's story to audiences for generations to come," the league wrote in a tweet.
Expressions of shock and despair poured in late Friday from fellow actors, athletes, musicians, Hollywood titans, fans and politicians. Viola Davis, who acted alongside Boseman in "Get On Up" and the upcoming Wilson adaptation, said: "Chadwick.....no words to express my devastation of losing you. Your talent, your spirit, your heart, your authenticity."
"He was a gentle soul and a brilliant artist, who will stay with us for eternity through his iconic performances," said Denzel Washington, who funded a scholarship Boseman used to study theater at Oxford and produced the upcoming Wilson film.
Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris, a Howard alumna, wrote the actor "was brilliant, kind, learned, and humble. He left too early but his life made a difference."
Disney executive chairman Bob Iger called Boseman "an extraordinary talent, and one of the most gentle and giving souls I have ever met." "Captain America" actor Chris Evans called Boseman "a true original. He was a deeply committed and constantly curious artist. He had so much amazing work still left to create."
His T'Challa character was first introduced to the blockbuster Marvel cinematic universe in 2016's "Captain America: Civil War," and his "Wakanda forever" salute became a pop culture landmark after the release of "Black Panther" two years ago.
"I don't think the world was ready for a 'Black Panther' movie before this moment. Socially and politically, it wasn't ready for it," he told AP at the time.