On this day, November 19, 1985, one of the most controversial movie actors in American history died from pneumonia at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, Woodland Hills, California. Born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry in Key West, Florida to West Indian immigrants, he would parlay his controversial persona into a successful film career, eventually becoming a millionaire, the first black actor in history to do so. He was also the first black actor to receive a screen credit. Perhaps known best as Stepin Fetchit, Perry was 83 when he died.
Perry started his career in show business at age twelve when he ran away to join a carnival. He earned his living for a few years as a singer and tap dancer. By the age of twenty, Perry had become a Vaudeville artiste and the manager of a traveling carnival show. He performed a vaudeville act with a partner, with the two of them being known as “Step” and “Fetchit”. When Perry became a solo act he combined the two names, which later became his professional name.
A literate and very intelligent man who wrote for the premier African-American newspaper, “The Chicago Defender,” Perry evolved a character called “The Laziest Man In the World” as part of the two-man vaudeville act that broke through to play the white circuits. What rankles so badly is that white audiences swallowed Perry’s Stepin Fetchit act whole, as a true representation of a “Negro.”
Despite the strong criticisms he received during the civil rights era over his playing to the worst stereotypes of blacks, in later years he was praised for his part in opening doors for black actors, notably receiving the Special Image Award by the NAACP. He was elected to the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978.
Fetchit appeared in 54 films between 1925 and 1976, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category “Motion pictures”.
1919 – Alan Young (actor: Mr. Ed, Emmy-Award winning show: The Alan Young Show ; Beverly Hills Cop 3, The Time Machine; cartoon voice: Scrooge McDuck)
1954 – Kathleen Quinlan (actress: The Promise, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, American Graffiti, Airport ’77, Apollo 13, Family Law)
1956 – Glynnis O’Connor (actress: The Deliberate Stranger, Johnny Dangerously, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, Sons and Daughters)
1960 – Allison Janney (Emmy Award-winning Supporting Actress: The West Wing [2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004]; The Guiding Light, Private Parts, Primary Colors, The Impostors, David and Lisa, Drop Dead Gorgeous, American Beauty)
1961 – Meg Ryan (Margaret Mary Emily Anne Hyra) (actress: When a Man Loves a Woman, When Harry Met Sally, D.O.A., Sleepless in Seattle, Flesh and Bone, Top Gun, One of the Boys, Addicted to Love, City of Angels, You’ve Got Mail)
1962 – Jodie (Alicia Christian) Foster (Academy Award-winning actress: The Accused , Silence of the Lambs ; Mayberry R.F.D., Taxi Driver, Napoleon and Samantha, Sommersby, Paper Moon, Maverick; director: Little Man Tate, Home for the Holidays)
1963 – Terry Farrell (actress: Becker, Beverly Hills Madam, Back to School, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Reasons of the Heart)
1969 – Erika Alexander (actress: The Cosby Show, Judging Amy, The Last Best Year, Fathers & Sons, Living Single)