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Clarence Gilyard, “Texas Ranger” who became Catholic, dies at 66


Rocco Manuel Spiezio/ Aleteia

Clarence Gilyard at Finding Vince 400 Festival

John Burger - published on 11/29/22

Actor was on his knees during a difficult divorce. Later, he dropped to his knees in the Presence of the Eucharistic Christ.

Clarence Gilyard, an actor who played leading roles in the television series Matlock and Walker, Texas Ranger – and who experienced a deep conversion because of the Eucharist in his life –  has died at the age of 66. 

Gilyard passed away in Utah on November 22 after a long illness. The University of Nevada at Las Vegas’s College of Fine Arts, where he had taught film and theater and directed Nevada Conservatory Theatre productions, announced his death on Monday. No other details were immediately available.

“It is with profound sadness that I share this news,” said Dean Nancy J. Uscher. “His students were deeply inspired by him, as were all who knew him. He had many extraordinary talents and was extremely well-known in the university through his dedication to teaching and his professional accomplishments. 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.”

Born on Christmas Eve in 1955 in Moses Lake, Washington, Gilyard was the second of six children in a military family. The family was originally from New Orleans, but moved many times, from one Air Force base to another. Gilyard himself, after excelling in high school, spent a year at the Air Force Academy, but dropped out to attend Sterling College in central Kansas. He later studied acting and earned a bachelor’s degree at California State University-Dominguez Hills. He also received a master of fine arts in theater performance at Southern Methodist University.

Moving to Los Angeles in 1979, he landed a role in the film Bleacher Bums, earning the distinction of being the first Black actor to play a cheerleader. Turning to television acting, he appeared in shows such as Diff’rent Strokes, The Facts of Life, 227, Simon & Simon, and Riptide. In 1982-1983, he was cast in the final season of the NBC series CHiPs as Officer Benjamin Webster, opposite Erik Estrada. He also co-starred with Jim Carrey in the 1984 NBC sitcom The Duck Factory

Gilyard’s movie debut came in 1986, when he played an F-14 Tomcat radar intercept officer in Top Gun. Other roles included a military man in The Karate Kid Part II, a criminal computer expert in Die Hard, and a reverend in Left Behind: The Movie and its sequel, Left Behind II: Tribulation Force

From 1989 to 1993, he played Ben Matlock’s private investigator, Conrad McMasters, on the TV series Matlock, a role that placed him opposite Andy Griffith, one of his childhood TV heroes. And in 1993, he began another long TV stint, co-starring with Chuck Norris on Walker, Texas Ranger

Witness to the Eucharist

But as accomplished as his acting career was, his personal life was also filled with drama. While continuing formal studies in acting, even as he was playing alongside Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis, he met Catherine Dutko, and the two married. The couple had two children. In time, the marriage fell apart.

“My wife left me because I started to have an affair,” he told St. Anthony Messenger magazine in 2009. “I was speaking a different language than the language of truth and accountability.”

Dutko filed for a divorce. Gilyard in turn ended the affair and got into a therapy group. “The only thing that was comforting was being in the presence of somebody where I could talk about my pain, then being with a group of people who were talking of their pain,” he said.

Providentially, another member of the therapy group invited him to attend a Catholic Mass. “So I went to a 5:30 Mass at St. Rita’s in Dallas,” said Gilyard, who was reared Lutheran. As St. Anthony Messenger said, Gilyard “had spent a lot of time on his knees, alone, in his anguish. Now he had to go to his knees in the presence of everyone.”

But that posture of despair turned into one of reverence and joy, as he discovered the mystery of Christ in the Eucharist. 

“I don’t know how many Catholics are aware of why we are on our knees in the presence of Jesus,” he said. “That’s where I needed to be. Mother Church allows that and informs us that way,” he says. “It is one of the great gifts.”

St. Anthony Messenger continued:

Being near the Eucharist made Clarence intensely aware of the presence of God, he explains. “It’s all about the presence of God in the consecrated host. Otherwise, it’s just a building. If Jesus is not present, it’s a sham,” he says. But Jesus is present, he knows: “I experienced it that day and to this day. To this day, it is what sustains me.”

Gilyard went to talk with a priest, who guided him into the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. The friend from group therapy invited him to spend time with his family on Sundays, when he couldn’t see his family in California. 

Preparing for entry into the Catholic Church, Gilyard developed a hunger for the Eucharist. He was received into the Church at Christmas 2001.

He learned that his wedding to Dutko was not sacramental, as it had been a civil ceremony. In time, he met and married. Prior to the wedding, his spiritual director encouraged him to attend Eucharistic adoration every night for a long period of time.

“I was becoming aware that I was going to have to become more mature in my use of time and resources,” he said. “The sacrament was going to demand of me a sacrifice, a loving response.”

Bishop Joseph Galante, who was coadjutor in Dallas-Fort Worth at the time, officiated the wedding, in 2001. Years later, Bishop Galante invited Gilyard to become a consultant to the Communications Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which Galante, who died in 2019, chaired.

Another priest he met learned of Gilyard’s background in film, and told him to visit the production house of Holy Cross Family Ministries when he got back to Hollywood. He since served as a board member.

In addition to his wife, Elena, Gilyard is survived by five children, including two from his first marriage.

“Professor Gilyard was a beacon of light and strength for everyone around him at UNLV,” said University of Nevada-Las Vegas film chairwoman Heather Addison. “Whenever we asked him how he was, he would cheerfully declare that he was ‘Blessed!’ But we are truly the ones who were blessed to be his colleagues and students for so many years. We love you and will miss you dearly, Professor G!”

St. Anthony Messenger summed up: “Along his life’s journey, Clarence Gilyard, the dramatist, has discovered a role, he says, ‘attracting people to God’s presence in my life.’ The Eucharist is his food along the way. With a grateful heart, he adds, along with so many Christians who found their way home before him, ‘We are the Body of Christ.’”

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