James Franklin Baskett
Baskett as Uncle Remus in Song of the South
|Born||February 16, 1904|
Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.
|Died||July 9, 1948 (aged 44)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Crown Hill Cemetery (Indianapolis, Indiana)|
James Baskett (né James Franklin Baskett; February 16, 1904 – July 9, 1948) was an American actor best known for his portrayal of Uncle Remus, singing the song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" in the 1946 Disney feature film Song of the South.
In recognition of his portrayal of the famous black storyteller he was given an Honorary Academy Award, making him the first black male performer to receive an Oscar. Despite his leading role, Baskett was not considered for a competitive Academy Award for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor.
After abandoning his plans to study pharmacology for financial reasons, James Baskett supported himself as an actor, moving from his home town of Indianapolis, Indiana, to New York City, and joining the company of Bill Robinson, better known as Mr. Bojangles. As Jimmie Baskette, he appeared on Broadway with Louis Armstrong in the all-black musical revue Hot Chocolates in 1929, and was announced for Hummin' Sam in 1933, although it failed to open. Baskett also acted in several all-black films made in the New York area, including Harlem Is Heaven (1932) starring Bill Robinson.
He then went to Los Angeles, California and had a supporting role in the film Straight to Heaven (1939), starring Nina Mae McKinney. In 1941, he voiced Fats Crow in the animated Disney film Dumbo, and also had bit parts in several B movies, including that of Lazarus in Revenge of the Zombies (1943), a porter in The Heavenly Body (1944) and native tribal leader Orbon in Jungle Queen (1945). . From 1943 until his death in 1948 Baskett also lent his voice to fast talking lawyer Gabby Gibson on the Amos 'n' Andy radio show.
In 1946, he auditioned for a bit part voicing one of the animals in the new Disney feature film Song of the South (1946), based on the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris. Walt Disney was impressed with Baskett's talent and hired him on the spot for the lead role of Uncle Remus. Baskett was also given the voice role of Brer Fox, one of the film's animated antagonists, and also filled in as the main animated protagonist, Brer Rabbit, in one sequence. This was one of the first Hollywood portrayals of a black actor as a non-comic character in a leading role in a film meant for general audiences.
Baskett did not attend the film's premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, because Atlanta was racially segregated by law. In fact, none of the black cast members attended because segregation would have relegated them to balcony seats, and they would not have been allowed to participate in any of the other premiere festivities.
Although Baskett was occasionally criticized for accepting such a "demeaning" role (most of his acting credits were that of African-American stereotypes), his acting was almost universally praised, and columnist Hedda Hopper, along with Walt Disney, was one of the many journalists and personalities who declared that he should receive an Academy Award for his work.
Honorary Academy Award
On March 20, 1948, Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award for his performance as Uncle Remus. Actress Ingrid Bergman and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Jean Hersholt presented him with the gold statuette "for his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the world in Walt Disney's Song of the South."
Illness and death
Baskett had been in poor health around 1946 during the filming of Song of the South due to diabetes and suffered a heart attack. His health continued to decline, and he was often unable to attend the Amos 'n' Andy show he was on, missing almost half of the 1947-1948 season. On July 9, 1948, during the show's summer hiatus, Baskett died of heart failure resulting from diabetes at age 44. He was survived by his wife Margaret and his mother Elizabeth. He is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
|1932||Harlem Is Heaven||Money Johnson||Film debut; credited as Jimmy Baskette|
|1933||20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang||Vocalist||Uncredited|
|1938||Gone Harlem||unknown||Credited as Jimmie Baskette|
|1938||Policy Man||unknown||Credited as Jimmie Baskette|
|1939||Straight to Heaven||First Detective|
|1943||Revenge of the Zombies||Lazarus||Alternative title: The Corpse Vanished|
|1944||The Heavenly Body||Porter||Uncredited|
|1945||Jungle Queen||Orbon||Credited as Jim Basquette|
|1946||Song of the South||Uncle Remus | Br'er Fox (voice) (all animated sequences) | Br'er Rabbit (Laughin' Place sequence only) (voice)||(final film roles)|
Baskett was married three times:
- Beulah Ewing (maiden; 1907–1944) – married February 22, 1924, in Garland County, Arkansas
- Edith G. Sims (maiden; 1905–1973) – married January 31, 1931, in Manhattan; divorced November 1946. Sims was a sister of Margaret Sims (1903–1974), blues singer, notably of the Chocolate Kiddies
- Margaret Elizabeth Bonvill (maiden; 1911–1992) – married sometime after 1946.
- Murfin, Patrick (March 21, 2013). "An Oscar for Uncle Remus". Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout. Retrieved June 26, 2020.
- As Jim Korkis notes, "Song of the South came out in 1946 and there was no balance of media images... African American performers often portrayed comic roles where their characters were described as lazy, slow-witted, easily scared or flustered, subservient and worse. That image was what the American public was seeing and accepting as the norm for African Americans." Jim Korkis, "The Sad Song of the South", USA Today (accessed 24 August 2013)
- In a 15 October 1946 article in the Atlanta Constitution, columnist Harold Martin noted that to bring Baskett to Atlanta, where he would not have been allowed to participate in any of the festivities, "would cause him many embarrassments, for his feelings are the same as any man's." The modern claim that no Atlanta hotel would give Baskett accommodation is false: there were several black-owned hotels in Atlanta at the time, including the Savoy and the McKay. Atlanta's Black-Owned Hotels: A History.
- Bayor, Ronald H. (1988). "Roads to Racial Segregation: Atlanta in the Twentieth Century". Journal of Urban History. 15 (1): 3–21.
- Mitchell, Dawn (February 22, 2019). "Indianapolis actor famous for 'Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah' was groundbreaking Oscars recipient". The Indianapolis Star. Archived from the original on December 4, 2019. Retrieved December 13, 2019.
- Cohen, Karl F. (2004). Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America. McFarland. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-7864-2032-2.
- Brayton, Tim (February 11, 2015). "Black History Month: Song of the South's Forgotten Oscar". The Film Experience. Retrieved June 26, 2020.
- Auchmutey, Jim (November 12, 2006). "Finding Uncle Remus". accessatlanta.com. Archived from the original on February 14, 2012. Retrieved November 17, 2008.
- Bodenhamer, David J.; Barrows, Robert Graham; Vanderstel, David Gordon, eds. (1994). The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. Indiana University Press. p. 485. ISBN 978-0-253-31222-8.