The cause was cancer, said his daughter, Rochelle Branch.
Mr. Branch, the son of a charismatic minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, initially pursued acting, appearing alongside Sidney Poitier in an all-black 1951 production of Sidney Kingsley’s “Detective Story” at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
But he found that there were few serious dramatic roles for black actors and decided that rather than wait for African American playwrights to gain increasing recognition, he would try to join their ranks and write the sort of parts that he sought to play. “What I am interested in is the wide diversity, along with the many basic commonalities, of the black experience in America,” he said.
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Read the obituary (Charles Sykes/AP)
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His first play, a one-act drama called “A Medal for Willie,” premiered in 1951 at the Club Baron in Harlem, more than a decade before the Black Arts Movement got underway. Produced by the left-wing Committee for the Negro in the Arts, it was inspired by a short newspaper article about a three-star general dispatched to present a posthumous award to a dead soldier’s family, a story Mr. Branch had clipped and carried around in his wallet.
The play emphasized the way in which young Cpl. Willie Jackson is praised as a hero in death, after long being treated with contempt or neglect by a racist, heavily segregated society. “I can’t help thinkin’ Willie died fightin’ in the wrong place,” his mother says, interrupting the medal ceremony to add: “Willie shoulda had that machine gun over here!”
Mr. Branch, then 24, was inducted into the Army the morning after “Willie” premiered and spent much of the next two years in Germany, working on his plays while serving with an educational training unit. His later works included “In Splendid Error” (1954), which starred William Marshall as Frederick Douglass debating fellow abolitionist John Brown, and “Light in the Southern Sky” (1958), about educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.
As before, however, Mr. Branch soured on his career prospects and decided on a change, switching his focus to radio and television — even as he quipped that the best offer he could get from NBC was a janitor’s job. Working with Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line of Major League Baseball, he ghostwrote a syndicated column for the New York Post in the late 1950s and directed “The Jackie Robinson Show,” a radio interview program with guests including former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
In the 1960s, he directed and wrote for “The Alma John Show,” a syndicated radio program, and was a producer and writer for public television specials, including for what is now WNET (Channel 13) in New York. Partnering with filmmaker William Greaves, he co-created the 1968 documentary “Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class,” which received an Emmy nomination and American Film Festival blue ribbon.
“We had difficulties once ‘Still a Brother’ was finished because [National Educational Television] had not expected that kind of film,” Greaves once said. “They had expected an Ebony magazine kind of film, but we brought them this documentary that talked about mental revolution and showed increasing militancy in the black experience.”
Narrated by Ossie Davis, the actor, playwright and civil rights activist, the documentary featured interview subjects such as Horace Morris, an organizer with the National Urban League who was in Newark amid the 1967 riots, during which police reportedly shot up his car, fatally wounded his stepfather and injured his brother. “No matter how far up the economic ladder you climb, there’s still the oppressive prejudice of the white man. . . . You’re still a brother,” said Morris.
Mr. Branch later wrote and produced TV specials for NBC News, led his own media consulting firm, taught drama and literature, and edited a pair of theatrical anthologies, winning an American Book Award for “Black Thunder: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Drama” (1992).
In large part, he said, his interest in drama stemmed from his father, whom Mr. Branch and a brother would imitate after church, with one boy delivering the “sermon” and the other issuing “amens” and “hallelujahs.”
“Years later when I had an opportunity to study drama formally, I realized that in my father’s church were the basic elements of what was called drama,” he told the scholarly journal African American Review for an interview published in 2004. “To this day, in my memory, my father remains the most awesome ‘stage’ figure I have ever seen. He didn’t call himself an actor, but let’s face it: black preachers are very effective actors.”
The sixth of seven sons, William Blackwell Branch was born in New Haven, Conn., on Sept. 11, 1927. An older brother, Frederick C. Branch, was later the first African American officer in the Marine Corps.
The family moved frequently because of his father’s preaching, traveling from the New York suburbs to Charlotte to Washington, where Mr. Branch attended Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. A standout orator, he won competitions and scholarships that helped him attend Northwestern University near Chicago, where he was nonetheless “denied housing on campus because he was black and wasn’t allowed to eat in the cafeteria,” his daughter said.
While an undergraduate, he appeared in a small role in a national touring production of Philip Yordan’s play “Anna Lucasta,” a Broadway hit with an all-black cast. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and moved to New York, later receiving a master’s in dramatic arts from Columbia University in 1958 and doing postgraduate work at Yale.
Early in his career, he received critical support from Langston Hughes, according to his former wife, Marie (Foster) Branch, who recalled Hughes passing writing assignments on to Mr. Branch and other young black writers. “We could not have afforded to get married if it weren’t for a piece Langston had given to William,” she said.
Mr. Branch’s play “In Splendid Error” premiered at the Greenwich Mews Theatre and was revived at the New Federal Theatre in 1978 as part of a series highlighting the “best black plays” of the 1940s and ’50s. His other theatrical works included “A Wreath for Udomo” (1960), based on a novel about revolutionary politics by South African author Peter Abrahams, and the family drama “Baccalaureate” (1975).
He also wrote the screenplay for “Together for Days” (also known as “Black Cream”), a 1973 blaxploitation film that featured Samuel L. Jackson in his big-screen debut. More than a decade later, Davis and his wife Ruby Dee, Mr. Branch’s longtime neighbors in New Rochelle, N.Y., commissioned him to write “A Letter From Booker T.” (1987) for public television.
Mr. Branch received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959; served on the board of the American Society of African Culture, a cultural exchange group that was secretly funded by the CIA; and taught at schools including the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Cornell University and what is now William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.
In addition to his daughter, of Los Angeles, survivors include two grandchildren.
While Mr. Branch said he was delighted by the success of black playwrights in younger generations, notably August Wilson, he was reluctant to suggest that equality had been achieved. “Even though things are somewhat better than the past, racism is not dead — certainly not dead in the theater either,” he told the African American Review. “There is a long, long way to go before there is anything like equality of opportunity.”