Canada Lee in the 1944 film Lifeboat
|Born||Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata
March 3, 1907
New York, New York, U.S.
|Died||May 9, 1952
New York, New York, U.S.
|Other names||Lional Canegata|
|Spouse(s)||Juanita Waller Lee, 1925–42
Frances Pollack Lee, 1951–52
|Real name||Lionel Cornelius Canegata|
|Rated at||140–147 lbs, welterweight|
|Wins by KO||17|
Canada Lee (March 3, 1907 – May 9, 1952) was an American actor who pioneered roles for African Americans. A champion of civil rights in the 1930s and 1940s, he died shortly before he was scheduled to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He became an actor after careers as a jockey, boxer, and musician. Lee furthered the African-American tradition in theater pioneered by such actors as Paul Robeson. Lee is the father of actor Carl Lee.
Lee was born Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata on March 3, 1907, in New York City. His father, James Cornelius Lionel Canegata, was born on the Caribbean island of St. Croix, and as a youth had migrated to New York, where he married Lydia Whaley Gasden. Raised by his parents in New York City, Lee was a talented musician, and by the age of 12 was a concert violinist. In his early teens, he ran away from home to become a jockey, but after growing too large to ride, he decided to try boxing.
Lee began boxing in 1926. Before one match, an announcer, stumbling over Lionel’s surname, mispronounced his name as "Canada Lee". Lee adopted the mistake as his own. At 5 feet 9 inches (1.75 m) and about 144 pounds (65 kg), he fought as a welterweight. His professional boxing record is listed variously as 38 wins with 15 knockouts, 32 losses with 8 knockouts, and 8 draws; 44 wins with 11 knockouts, 31 losses, and three draws; or 33–31–7 with 13 knockouts. He fought and lost to world champions Jack Britton, Tommy Freeman, and Lou Brouillard. He boxed a ten-round draw with middleweight champion Vince Dundee in 1928.
During a 1930 bout with Willie Garafola, a glancing blow to his right eye detached his retina. His sight was impaired, and he finally quit boxing in 1933. Lee began to conduct a 15-piece orchestra at a nightclub in Harlem, "The Jitterbug", which he also managed. Neither the band nor the nightclub could survive the Great Depression. Despite having made an estimated US$90,000 during his boxing career (roughly equivalent to $1,548,131 today), by the mid-1930s Lee was impoverished.
Lee's acting career began by accident. While at a YMCA to apply for a job as a laborer, he stumbled upon an audition in progress and was invited to try out. He earned a supporting role in Frank Wilson’s 1934 production of Brother Moses, which played to a crowd of ten thousand in Central Park. Lee received favorable reviews, and settled on acting as a new career.
This brought him into contact with many of the most famous actors and directors of the late 1930s. Lee summered at Pine Brook Country Club in Nichols, Connecticut. Pinebrook is best known for becoming the summer home of the Group Theatre (New York). Some of the other artists who summered there were Elia Kazan, Harry Morgan, John Garfield, Lee J. Cobb, Will Geer, Clifford Odets, Howard Da Silva and Irwin Shaw.
Working with the Federal Theater Project, Lee appeared in Stevedore in 1934, with various small roles following. His first major role in a seminal production came in Orson Welles's so-called Voodoo Macbeth (1936) for the Negro Theater Project, a division of the Federal Theatre Project. Lee played Banquo in this controversial production, which featured a Haitian motif in the set, African-themed drumming and a black cast of over two hundred actors. The play's treatment of African Americans proved controversial, and Lee is reported to have rescued Welles from angry protestors on two occasions.
After two more years in black theater and Theater Project productions, including the lead role in The Big White Fog, Lee reunited with Welles for the stage production of Richard Wright's Native Son. The 1941 production was a spectacular hit for both Welles and Lee, whom The New York Times called "the greatest Negro actor of his era and one of the finest actors in the country." Wright also applauded the performance, noting the contrast between Lee's affable personality and his intensity as Bigger Thomas. The sympathetic portrayal of a black man driven to murder by racial hatred brought much criticism however, especially from the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the Legion of Decency, and the ensuing pressure forced the play to close in December 1942.
During World War II, Lee continued to act in plays and in films. In 1942, he played in two comedies by William Saroyan; Lee earned approving reviews despite the generally negative response to these plays. In 1943, he took a lead role in a production of the race-themed drama South Pacific, directed by Lee Strasberg, concerning a cynical African-American soldier who had racially based reservations about fighting the Japanese. The following year, he became the first African American to play Caliban, in Margaret Webster’s 1945 Broadway rendition of The Tempest. Lee had admired Shakespeare since his turn in Macbeth; indeed, at the time of his death he was preparing to play Othello on film. The following year, George Rylands cast him as Bosola in a Broadway staging of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi – one of the first occasions on which a black actor portrayed a white character (Lee wore whiteface).
After the war, Lee continued to act. In 1946, he played a principal role in On Whitman Avenue, a drama about racial prejudice directed by Margo Jones. Lee produced the play, making him the first African-American producer on Broadway; the play spoke directly to the need for interracial housing following World War II and won the praise of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote weekly columns encouraging readers to see it. Two years later, he played the part of an obedient slave in Let My People Go, a dramatization of the life of Denmark Vesey.
Lee made his screen debut in Keep Punching (1939), a film about boxing. Perhaps his most famous film role was in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), playing a sailor. Lee insisted on changing his dialogue, which used a semi-comical dialect. In 1947, he had a supporting role in Robert Rossen's Body and Soul, another boxing picture. In 1949, he took another supporting role in Lost Boundaries, a drama about passing. Lee's last film role was in Cry, the Beloved Country (1951).
Along with his varied and successful stage and screen careers, Lee became the first African-American DJ on a major radio station, hosting The Canada Lee Show, and would continue a successful and lengthy radio career as both actor and narrator. He frequently narrated on the groundbreaking series New World A-Comin′, a radio show dedicated to presenting Negro history and culture to mainstream American audiences.
Civil rights activism
As an actor, Lee came into contact with many of the leading progressive figures in the country. Langston Hughes, for instance, wrote two brief plays for Lee; these were submitted to the Theater Project, but their criticism of racism in America was deemed too controversial, and neither was staged. Lee spoke to schools, sponsored various humanitarian events, and began speaking directly against the existing segregation in America’s armed forces, while simultaneously acknowledging the need to win World War II. To this latter end, he appeared at numerous USO events; he won an award from the United States Recruiting Office and another from the Treasury Department for his help in selling war bonds. These sentiments would carry on throughout his life, culminating in his early firsthand account of apartheid in South Africa.
By the late 1940s, the rising tide of anti-communism had made many of his earlier contacts politically dangerous. In 1949, the trade journal Variety stated that under no circumstance was Lee to be used in American Tobacco’s televised production of a radio play he had recently starred in because he was “too controversial”.
The same year, the FBI offered to clear Lee’s name if he would publicly call Paul Robeson a communist. Lee refused and responded by saying, “All you’re trying to do is split my race.” According to newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, Lee stated that he intended to come out and “publicly blast Paul Robeson.” However, the fact that the friendship between the two actors remained until Lee's death suggests that Robeson put no faith in Winchell's claim.
At the height of the Hollywood blacklist, Lee managed to find work in 1950 as the star of a British film Cry, The Beloved Country, for which both he and Sidney Poitier were smuggled into South Africa as indentured servants in order to play their roles as African ministers. During filming, Lee had his first heart attack, and he never fully recovered his health. The film’s message of universal brotherhood stands as Lee's final work towards this aim.
Being on the Hollywood blacklist prevented him from getting further work. Scheduled to appear in Italy to begin production on a filmed version of Othello, he was repeatedly notified that his passport "remained under review". Lee was reportedly to star as Bigger Thomas in the Argentine version of Native Son but was replaced in the role by Richard Wright, author of the novel, when Lee had to withdraw.
Canada Lee met and was an influence on H. Jack Geiger, founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility. They met in 1940, when Geiger, a 14-year-old middle-class Jewish runaway, was backstage at a Broadway production of Native Son. Lee agreed to take Geiger in when he showed up at his door in Harlem asking for a place to stay. Geiger stayed with Lee for over a year (with the consent of Geiger's parents), and Lee took on the role of surrogate father. During his time with Lee, Geiger was introduced to people like Langston Hughes, Billy Strayhorn, Richard Wright, and Adam Clayton Powell. After many years of varied experiences and an on-going friendship with Lee, Geiger eventually became a journalist, then a doctor. He later went on to co-found the first community health center in the United States: Columbia Point Health Center in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Geiger would go on to become active in civil rights, to become the founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, then Physicians for Human Rights, establishing community health centers in Mississippi and South Africa, which would eventually lead to 900 community health care centers providing primary health care for more than 14 million low-income people in the country. Geiger says he would never have moved so deeply in these worlds so quickly if not for his experiences with Canada Lee.
In December 1925, Lee married Juanita Waller, by whom he had a son, the actor Carl Vincent Lee. The couple were divorced during the controversy over Native Son.
In 1934, Lee began a love affair with publisher and peace activist Caresse Crosby, despite the threat of miscegenation laws. They often had lunch in uptown New York in Harlem at the then-new restaurant "Franks", where they could maintain their secret relationship. When Lee was performing in Washington, D.C., during the 1940s, the only restaurant in the city where they could eat together was an African restaurant named the Bugazi. Crosby and Lee's intimate relationship continued into the mid-1940s.
In March 1951, Lee married Frances Pollack. They remained together until he died just over a year later.
- Keep Punching (1939)
- Lifeboat (1944)
- Body and Soul (1947)
- Lost Boundaries (1949)
- Cry, The Beloved Country (1952)
- We Work Again (1937) (uncredited)
- Henry Browne, Farmer (1942), a propaganda short narrated by Lee
- Ask the OPA (1945)
- The Roosevelt Story (1947)
- The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre (1950), episode "The Final Bell"
- "Canada Lee Brought Fame To Negro Race". Associated Press. May 11, 1952. Retrieved 2010-10-23. "Canada Lee, the 'Native Son' whose acting did much to advance the Negro in the professional theatre, died Friday night of a heart attack. He was 45 years old...."
- "Canada Lee". BoxRec. "division welterweight height 5′ 9″ / 175cm alias Lionel Canegata residence New York, New York, United States birth name Leonard L. Cornelius Canegata won 34 (KO 15) + lost 32 (KO 1) + drawn 8 = 76 rounds boxed 517 Newspaper Decisions won 3 : lost 1 : drawn rounds boxed 30 Total Bouts 80 KO% 18.75"
- Hamalian, Linda (2005). The Cramoisy Queen: A Life of Caresse Crosby. Southern Illinois University. pp. 126–129. ISBN 0-8093-1865-2.
- [http://archives.nypl.org/uploads/collection/pdf_finding_aid/Micro_R-7601.pdf "Biographical Sketch", Canada Lee Papers.
- "Kindness of Strangers: Runaway". This American Life. Episode 75. 12 September 1997. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/75/kindness-of-strangers.
- Canada Lee at the Internet Movie Database
- Pinewood Lake website retrieved on 2010-09-10
- Images of America, Trumbull Historical Society, 1997, p. 123.
- Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement Five, 1951–1955 (1977). C. Scribner’s Sons, p. 419.
- Stephen Smith. "Radio Fights Jim Crow: New World A'Coming (1944–57)". American RadioWorks. Retrieved February 23, 2012.
- "Canada Lee, Actor on Stage, Screen; Former Boxer, Band Leader, Jockey Dies. Scored First Success in 'Native Son'". New York Times. May 10, 1952. Retrieved 2010-10-23. "Canada Lee, the Negro actor who had won fame on ..."
- Hill, Erroll. Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.
- Leiter, Samuel. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the New York Stage, 1940–1950. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.
- Smith, Mona Z., Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee, London: Faber and Faber 2004. ISBN 0-571-21142-9
- Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 volumes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Woll, Allen. Dictionary of the Black Theatre: Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Selected Harlem Theatre. New York: Greenwood Press, 1983.
- His page Canada Lee's Homepage
- Canada Lee at Find a Grave
- Canada Lee at the Internet Movie Database
- Canada Lee at the Internet Broadway Database
- Biography at the African-American Registry
- Website for the documentary 'Blacklist: Recovering the Life of Canada Lee
- Website for Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee by Mona Z. Smith
- This American Life episode in which Jack Geiger, a middle-class Jewish kid, tells his story of becoming friends with Canada Lee and how his influence changed Jack's life
- Bob A. Feldman, "Canada Lee" folk song lyrics.