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Rest In Peace

Remembering ‘Barney Miller’ actor Ron Glass

From ‘Sanford and Son’ to ‘Firefly,’ his vibrant career spanned nearly 60 years

Fans are still remembering and mourning the loss of actor Ron Glass, who effortlessly radiated an easygoing charm whenever he appeared on screen. Glass died Nov. 25 of respiratory failure, according to news reports. He was 71.

Glass was a prolific actor, best known for playing the handsome and debonair detective Ron Harris on Barney Miller from 1975 to 1982, and more recently for his role as Shepherd Derrial Book in Joss Whedon’s short-lived cult hit Firefly. Glass reprised his role as Book for the followup movie to the series, Serenity, as well.

Whedon tweeted a goodbye to Glass, captioning a moment from Firefly:

The part of Derrial Book wasn’t necessarily an intuitive one for Glass. He was a devout Buddhist, and Book was more of a conventionally Christian character. Glass, a native of Evansville, Indiana, never thought of himself as much of a science fiction actor, either, though his role as a white-haired sage on Firefly earned him legions of new fans unfamiliar with his role on Barney Miller.

“I wasn’t familiar with the genre, and I also had this idea that if I did science fiction, I was going to be attached to a lot of prosthetics,” Glass told his hometown newspaper, the Evansville Courier & Press, in 2013. “That didn’t sound very attractive to me because I’d heard of people spending four to five hours in the makeup room, and I didn’t want to do that.”

The Cast of Barney Miller

The cast of Barney Miller

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

But Glass accepted a role as Loken on Star Trek Voyager in 2000 and found it rewarding and worth the price of admission, which indeed was hours in the makeup chair. When the opportunity for Firefly came around, Glass jumped at it. “I read the script and just fell in love with the character,” Glass told the Courier & Press. “It just lifted off the page for me.”

Glass was a versatile television journeyman for much of his career, notching guest stints on Maude and the original Hawaii Five-0 before becoming a regular fixture on Sanford and Son. He made appearances on Good Times and 227. He did Friends and The Practice and Designing Women, too, plus voice work on Rugrats and The Proud Family. Or maybe, more recently, you knew his face from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Perhaps you caught him as Felix Unger on The New Odd Couple. Glass did everything.

“Ron Glass, for me, was a great role model because growing up it was great to see him on television and film and see someone who looked like me,” said Emil Wilbekin, a former editor-at-large at Essence magazine and former editor-in-chief of Vibe. “He was a black man who looked like black men who were in my life. He reminded me of my uncles or men that I knew in my church or one of my high school teachers, actually. So his contribution to me was to defy stereotypes and I think that’s one of the great contributions that he gave us in popular culture.”

Ron Glass guest starring in an episode of Family Matters.

Ron Glass guest starring in an episode of Family Matters.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

“Ron was a private, gentle and caring man,” Glass’ agent, Jeffrey Leavitt, told NBC News. “He was an absolute delight to watch on screen. Words cannot adequately express my sorrow.”

Upon hearing of Glass’ death, his Firefly co-star Alan Tudyk tweeted that Glass was “one of the greatest actors to work with. His laugh was beyond infectious and his generosity was ever-present.” He continued, adding, “Ron Glass was also a sassy smart-ass and I prize that very much. A leaf on the wind.”

Ron Glass, right, on the set of Firefly.

Ron Glass, right, on the set of Firefly.

Ron Eisenberg/Fox

Glass was also a fixture at the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center, a Los Angeles nonprofit specializing in mentoring and college preparation. According to a tribute posted by the center, Glass first became involved with the Wooten Center after the 1992 Rodney King riots spurred him to community action. He chaired its board of directors from 1993 to 2005. Whedon has suggested fans wishing to pay tribute to Glass contribute to the Wooten Center in the actor’s name.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.