What You Didn't Know About Chadwick Boseman

After paying his dues on episodes of All My Children, ER, Cold Case, and Castle, Chadwick Boseman hit the big time with a string of starring roles in biographical movies. He portrayed baseball player and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson in 42, musical genius James Brown in Get On Up, and the first African-American Supreme Court judge Thurgood Marshall in Marshall. But what made Chadwick Boseman a superstar, and a powerful force in movie and cultural history, was his role as Black Panther.

In the 2018 Marvel Cinematic Universe entry Black Panther, Boseman brought depth, weight, and honor to his role as the title hero, also known as King T'Challa, the kind and just ruler of the African utopia of Wakanda. Boseman made his way to the A-List and stayed there, appearing in not just big blockbusters but artful, thought-provoking works like Da 5 Bloods and 21 Bridges. Likable, charismatic, and consistently lauded for his acting work, Boseman's journey to big screen success was long, tough, and fascinating. Here's the inside story on "the king," Chadwick Boseman.

Chadwick Boseman was a young basketball star

The Amateur Athletic Union, or AAU, is the United States' pre-eminent youth basketball organization. Teams from different towns, cities, and neighborhoods form independently (meaning not representing schools) and play each other in games and tournaments. In the summer of 1993, the 16-and-under AAU basketball squad from Anderson, S.C., made it all the way to a national competition in Orlando, Fla. It didn't produce any future NBA players, but it did feature two stars: two-time NFL Pro Bowler Shaun Ellis, and King T'Challa himself, Chadwick Boseman, or just "Chad" as he was known at the time.

A major highlight of his youth basketball years: going head-to-head against another South Carolina player named Kevin Garnett (above left) — as in future NBA superstar, basketball Hall of Famer, and Uncut Gems star Kevin Garnett. "I played against Garnett in AAU. He probably would not remember it," Boseman said on Jimmy Kimmel Live, adding, "I didn't match up with him, but I scored on him. I did an up and under on him."

Before he was an actor, Chadwick Boseman was a director

Chadwick Boseman was among the most magnetic and electrifying screen performers of his generation. It seems like he was destined for acting stardom, but his life as an artistic professional began in earnest with a different goal in mind: He wanted to be a theatrical director. Upon graduating from high school in Anderson, S.C., according to Rolling Stone, Boseman applied successfully to Howard University, the prestigious, historically Black learning institution in Washington, D.C. He entered the theater department to study play directing, but took as many acting classes as he could to help understand the point of view of his performers. 

Phylicia Rashad, the actress best known for portraying Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, was teaching at Howard during Boseman's metriculation. Soon, the veteran performer became Boseman's mentor. Rashad helped Boseman and a few classmates land spots in a summer theatrical training program at Oxford University in England, and helped fund it, too. "She pushed for us," Boseman told Rolling Stone, adding, "She essentially got some celebrity friends to pay for us to go." (That benefactor turned out to be Denzel Washington.) After graduation, Boseman moved to Brooklyn and stared directing work in the burgeoning "hip-hop theater scene." He also taught acting classes for children at the Schomburg Center, a Black culture research library in Harlem. To help pay the bills, he started acting professionally, landing small parts on New York-based TV shows like Cold Case and CSI: New York.

Theater was Chadwick Boseman's first passion

While he eventually ascended to the position of one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, that was years after Chadwick Boseman had already established himself as a talented and esteemed playwright. He started writing scenes and dialogue as a junior in high school. After a basketball teammate was "shot and killed," Boseman dealt with the shocking and tragic death by composing a play about it. That work, Crossroads, was performed at his South Carolina high school, and awakened the artist within. "I just had a feeling that this was something that was calling me," Boseman told Rolling Stone.

As he kept training and working in various levels of theater in the U.S. and the U.K., Boseman kept honing his playwriting skills. In the early 2000s, he co-wrote Rhyme Deferred, which toured the United States, and his play Hieroglyphic Graffiti, in which ancient Egyptian gods live in the present-day, was staged at the National Black Theatre Festival and at the University of Pittsburgh. In 2005, Boseman's stylized, mostly verse play Deep Azure received a full production at the Congo Square Theater in Chicago. It later won a local award for best new play.

Chadwick Boseman did and did not play many famous people

Chadwick Boseman moved from working actor to critically acclaimed movie star in 2013 with 42, in which he played Jackie Robinson, the sports legend who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. He followed that up with two more roles in two more films about prominent, historically important African-American men: Get On Up, the James Brown story, and Marshall, about Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, who was the first African-American ever appointed to the position. For a moment there, Boseman became known as something of a biopics guy, and says he was offered the chance to play "hundreds of people" from American history on the big screen. "If I told you all the different ones," Boseman teased on The Breakfast Club. "It just so happens that those are the ones that resonated."

So who wouldn't Boseman play? On The Breakfast Club he wouldn't say what completed films he'd turned down, but mentioned that he was offered the lead in a movie about R&B icon Sam Cooke, and when he hosted Saturday Night Live in 2018, he didn't want to play a certain golfer. "There was a sketch about Tiger Woods' comeback where he was visited by golf ghosts a la A Christmas Carol," cast member Luke Null tweeted. Because of a joke about Woods' marital indiscretions, Boseman "politely asked that the sketch be pulled. He didn't want to take what he perceived as a cheap shot during a triumphant moment in Tiger's career."

Chadwick Boseman played a hero and acknowledged a real one

It wasn't much of a surprise then when the hugely popular Black Panther dominated the nominations for the 2018 MTV Movie and TV Awards with seven nods, including Best Movie, and for star Chadwick Boseman personally, Best Performance in a Movie and Best Hero. The film and its lead actor won in all those categories, and Boseman generously decided to share the attention.

In April 2018, an assailant opened fire in a Waffle House in Antioch, Tenn., killing four people and wounding two. The tragedy could have been worse had James Shaw, Jr. not intervened and wrestled the rifle away. Shaw resisted credit. "I did that completely out of a selfish act. I was completely doing it just to save myself," Shaw said (via NPR), adding, "I don't want people to think that I was the Terminator, or Superman or anybody like that."

One person who did think James Shaw's name belonged alongside those famous fictional superheroes: Chadwick Boseman, who played a famous fictional superhero. "Receiving an award for playing a superhero is amazing, but it's even greater to acknowledge the heroes that we have in real life," Boseman said in his Best Hero acceptance speech. Then he brought Shaw up on stage and introduced him to the crowd. "He saved lives. Come on up here." Boseman then gave his popcorn bucket-shaped trophy to the Waffle House hero, and told him, "This is gonna live at your house."

Why did Chadwick Boseman star in Gods of Egypt?

After he made a splash with his first major big-screen role as Jackie Robinson in 42, but before he became a household name as the awe-inspiring star of Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman booked a lot of supporting roles in big movies, such as playing a football prospect in Kevin Costner's Draft Day and Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of magic and wisdom, in Gods of Egypt.

The 2016 fantasy film was something of a throwback to audience-thrilling epics of the '50s and '60s, such as Cleopatra, but with modern special effects and storytelling elements to update it to modern audiences. One way Gods and Egypt stayed steadfastly in the past: Filmmakers didn't bother to cast hardly any people of color in this film set in ancient Africa, where there weren't a lot of Caucasian people. The film endured criticism, and accusations of whitewashing, when it entered production in 2014, which continued up to the film's release, and led to director Alex Proyas publicly apologizing for the casting choices.

Among the main cast, the only Black actor was Chadwick Boseman, who was well aware of the film's predominantly white actors. According to his interview with Rolling stone, that's actually why he took the role of Thoth — to ensure that there would be, at a minimum, one Black actor playing an African god.

No one else was going to be Black Panther

Looking back, it seems almost preordained that Chadwick Boseman would play Black Panther in a blockbuster superhero movie. He studied with future Black Panther comics writer Ta-Nehisi Coates at Howard University, for example, which is where he first discovered the character. "At a historically black college, you're getting turned on to all these things — the pantheon of our culture," Boseman told Rolling Stone. "It's John Coltrane, it's James Baldwin. And it's Black Panther." And long before Marvel Studios considered making a movie about the first mainstream Black superhero, Boseman had set his sights on portraying the character. "I had already written about Black Panther in my journals as something that I wanted to do and I had written down certain things that I would like to see in a movie about Black Panther," he told Hunger. "I'd had people tell me that if there was gonna be a Black Panther movie then I should be the one to play him, so when they called me it was surreal."

Little did Boseman know that he wasn't only Marvel's top choice to play Black Panther — he was the studio's only choice. According to Marvel Studios head Kevin Fiege at a 2018 press conference (via CBR), executives were planning Captain America: Civil War, when producer Nate Moore suggested bringing in Black Panther to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As to whom should portray the part, "almost instantly we all said 'Chadwick,'" Fiege declared. "And in my memory, although maybe it was the next day, we got him on a speaker phone right then."

Chadwick Boseman put in the work to play Black Panther

As much as Chadwick Boseman's positive, magical thinking led to his casting as Black Panther, along with Marvel Studios insistence that he take the role, he didn't slack when the time came to prepare for the part. In addition to martial arts training, he conducted extensive research, according to Rolling Stone, studying the Masai warriors of Kenya and Tanzania, interviewing a western African babalawo, a Yoruban priest and interpreter of an oracle, studying the speeches of Nelson Mandela, and listening to the songs of pioneering African musician Fela Kuti. Boseman took two fact-finding trips to South Africa, and during one of those jaunts, a street musician in Cape Town gave the actor the name Mxolisi, that in the local Xhosa language means "Peacemaker."

Xhosa also heavily informed the accent which Boseman used in Black Panther and other MCU films, something he personally advocated. "I had to push for that. I felt there was no way in the world I could do the movie without an accent," he said. "I had to convince [Marvel] it was something we couldn't be afraid of." Other elements of Wakandan speech come from groups in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone — where Boseman said his ancestors originated. "I wanted to use whatever would inspire me for certain sounds," he told the Los Angeles Times.

Privacy was important to Chadwick Boseman

Chadwick Boseman kept his private life just that, private, for many years. But shortly after Black Panther opened to $202 million in early 2018 and made Boseman a sudden superstar, it became hard for him to hold back the press, which aimed to give the public what it wanted — to know everything there was to know about this newly-minted Marvel hero, especially every detail of his love life.

According to Page Six, he was spotted out and about with musician Taylor Simone Ledward in 2015, and per In Touch Weekly, Boseman for years alluded to having a special "lady" but wouldn't name her. Speculation ramped up after the couple attended the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles in February 2018 together. In Touch sought confirmation that the couple were a going concern by going as straight to the source as possible — they asked Ledward's grandmother. "They respect each other," she said, confirming the coupling. "She's very happy, and he is, too." Boseman and Ledward remained together, and married at some point, the details of which remained personal and private.

Chadwick Boseman died tragically young

While Chadwick Boseman became the toast of Hollywood playing a superhero in the revolutionary Black Panther, a landmark moment in American film that also earned over $1 billion and an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, the actor was privately waging the fight of his life. In 2016, the same year Boseman portrayed King T'Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, Boseman was diagnosed with colon cancer. The star never let the public at large know that he was seeking treatment for (and feeling the effects of) the devastating and potentially fatal disease, demurring even after a video went viral in April 2020 of the actor depicting a sudden and profound weight loss.

Sadly, Boseman would lose the battle. Four years after his diagnosis, Boseman died at his home in Los Angeles, surrounded by his family and wife, according to the actor's publicist. This means that Boseman worked extensively in film while quietly dealing with cancer. So many of his works, his family said in a statement, "were filmed during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy." Boseman was 43 years old.

There were many Chadwick Boseman projects still in the works

As one of the biggest stars in Hollywood — thanks to a string of successful biopics and his status as a superhero in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe — Chadwick Boseman had a number of projects in the works at the time of his death. He leaves behind many films that are unfinished and may remain forever unmade because Boseman was so indelible in their creation and production.

Oscar-winning Moonlight filmmaker Barry Jenkins was set to direct Expatriate, a 1970s plane hijacking thriller from a script written by Boseman with longtime collaborator Logan Coles. In 2018, Boseman and Coles signed on to bring an adaptation of The Stars in My Soul to film, based on the memoir of NASA astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi. Boseman was also planning to reprise his biggest and most famous role in the Phase 4 Marvel movie Black Panther IIscheduled to hit movie theaters in May 2022. As of this writing, it is uncertain if Marvel will continue the movie with another actor or scrap it all together.

Boseman's final completed film was Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a version of August Wilson's acclaimed play set in the world of 1920s blues music, which Entertainment Weekly said earned the actor some Oscar Buzz. Time will tell if his role as trumpet player Levee will earn Boseman a posthumous Academy Award nomination.