Stepin Fetchit

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Stepin Fetchit
Stepin Fetchit1.jpg
Born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry
(1902-05-30)May 30, 1902
Key West, Florida, U.S.
Died November 19, 1985(1985-11-19) (aged 83)
Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Pneumonia and heart failure
Resting place Calvary Cemetery, East Los Angeles
Occupation Actor
Years active 1925–1976
Spouse(s) Dorothy Stevenson (1929–?)
Winifred Johnson
Bernice Sims (?–1984) (her death)
Children Jemajo Perry (1930–)
Donald Lambright (1938–1969)

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (May 30, 1902 – November 19, 1985), better known by the stage name Stepin Fetchit, was an American comedian and film actor,[1] who had his greatest fame throughout the 1930s. In films and on stage, the persona of Stepin Fetchit was billed as "The Laziest Man in the World".

Perry parlayed the Fetchit 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 featured screen credit in a film.[2][3]

Perry's film career slowed after 1939, and after 1953 nearly stopped altogether. Around that time, the actor and the character began to be seen by black Americans and American culture at large as an embarrassing anachronism who echoed and perpetuated negative stereotypes. However, in more recent years, the Stepin Fetchit character has undergone a reevaluation by some scholars, who view him as an embodiment of the trickster archetype.[4]

Early life[edit]

Little is certain about Perry's background other than that he was born in Key West, Florida to West Indian immigrants.[2] He was the second child of Joseph Perry, a cigar maker from Jamaica (although some sources indicate the Bahamas) and Dora Monroe, a seamstress from Nassau. Both of his parents came to the United States in the 1890s, where they married. By 1910, the family had moved north to Tampa, Florida. Another source says he was adopted when he was eleven years old and taken to live in Montgomery, Alabama.[2]

His mother wanted him to be a dentist, so Perry was adopted by a quack dentist, for whom he blacked boots before running away at age twelve to join a carnival. He earned his living for a few years as a singer and tap dancer.[2]

Vaudeville career[edit]

Perry began entertaining in his teens as a comic character actor. By the age of twenty, Perry had become a vaudeville artist and the manager of a traveling carnival show. His stage name was a contraction of "step and fetch it". His accounts of how he adopted the name varied, but generally he claimed that it originated when he performed a vaudeville act with a partner. Perry won money betting on a racehorse named "Step and Fetch It", and he and his partner decided to adopt the names "Step" and "Fetchit" for their act. When Perry became a solo act he combined the two names, which later became his professional name.[5]

Film career[edit]

Perry played comic relief roles in a number of films, all based on his character known as "The Laziest Man in the World". In his personal life, Perry was highly literate and had a concurrent career writing for The Chicago Defender. He made his reputation and earned a five-year studio contract with his performance in In Old Kentucky (1927). The film featured a romantic connection between Perry and actress Carolynne Snowden,[6] a subplot that was decidedly an on-screen rarity for African-American actors working among a white cast.[7]

Perry starred in Hearts in Dixie (1929), one of the first studio productions to boast a predominantly African-American cast.[8]

For his role as Joe in the 1929 part-talkie film version of Show Boat,[9] Perry's singing voice was supplied by Jules Bledsoe, who had originated the role in the stage musical. Fetchit did not "sing" "Ol' Man River", but instead a new song used in the film, "The Lonesome Road". Bledsoe was actually seen singing "Ol' Man River" in the sound prologue shown preceding the film.

Perry was good friends with fellow comic actor Will Rogers,[2] and they appeared in four films together, David Harum (1934), Judge Priest (1934), Steamboat 'Round the Bend (1935), and The County Chairman (1935).

By the mid-1930s, Perry was a bona fide film star, and was the first black actor to become a millionaire.[4]

Fetchit appeared in 44 films between 1927 and 1939. In 1940, he temporarily stopped appearing in films, having been frustrated in his attempt to get equal pay and billing with his white costars.[4] He returned in 1945, in part due to financial need, though he only appeared in eight more films between 1945 and 1953.

Perry declared bankruptcy in 1947, stating assets of $146[2] (equal to about $1,547 today)[10] resulting in a return to Vaudeville appearing at the Anderson Free Fair in 1949 alongside Singer's Midgets [11]

He became a friend of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in the 1960s.[2]

After 1953, Perry essentially stopped appearing in films, other than several cameo appearances and a television film (Cutter) in the early 1970s.

He also found himself in conflict during his career with civil rights leaders who criticized him personally for the film roles that he portrayed. In 1968, CBS aired an hourlong documentary, Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed, written by Andy Rooney (who won an Emmy Award for it)[12] and narrated by Bill Cosby, which criticized the depiction of blacks in American film, and especially singled out Stepin Fetchit for criticism. After the show aired, Perry unsuccessfully sued CBS and the documentary's producers for defamation of character.[4]

Awards and honors[edit]

Fetchit has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category "Motion pictures".

In 1976, despite popular aversion to his character, the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP awarded Perry a Special NAACP Image Award. Two years after that, he was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

Legacy[edit]

Perry spawned imitators, most notably Willie Best (Sleep 'n Eat) and Mantan Moreland, the scared, wide-eyed manservant of Charlie Chan. (Perry actually played a manservant in the Chan series before Moreland – in 1935's Charlie Chan in Egypt).[13]

Another black film character based on Stepin Fetchit was Matthew Beard's "Stymie" in the Our Gang comedies. Perry had guest-starred in an earlier Our Gang short, A Tough Winter, intended as the pilot film for a Fetchit short subject series producer Hal Roach had planned, but which never materialized.

In the 2005 book Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry, African American critic Mel Watkins argued that the Stepin Fetchit character was not truly lazy or simpleminded, but rather deliberately tricked his white employers so that they would do the work instead of him, a technique that developed during American slavery and was referred to as "putting on old massa", which black audiences of the time would have been familiar with.[4]

Personal life[edit]

Perry was married three times: to Dorothy Stevenson, Winifred Johnson, and Bernice Sims. In 1930 his wife Dorothy gave birth to their son, Jemajo.[3] With Winifred he had a second son in 1935: Donald, who later took his step-father's name, Lambright. In April 1969, Donald Lambright traveled the Pennsylvania Turnpike shooting people. He injured fifteen and killed three before turning the gun on himself.[14][15][16]

Death[edit]

A stroke in 1976[2] ended Perry's acting career, and he moved into the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital.[2] He died November 19, 1985 from pneumonia and heart failure at age 83.[17] He was buried at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles with a Catholic Funeral Mass.[18]

Filmography[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Stepin Fetchit". New York Times. 2007-01-18. Retrieved 2011-10-14. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Lamparski, Richard (1982). Whatever Became Of ...? Eighth Series. New York: Crown Publishers. pp. 106–7. ISBN 0-517-54855-0. 
  3. ^ a b Clark, Champ (2005). Shuffling to Ignominy: The Tragedy of Stepin Fetchit. iUniverse. p. 2. ISBN 0-595-37125-6. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Roy Hurst (March 6, 2006). "Stepin Fetchit, Hollywood's First Black Film Star". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2007-07-30. 
  5. ^ Watkins, Mel (2005). Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry. Pantheon Books. pp. 32–33. ISBN 0-375-42382-6. 
  6. ^ Black Past: Carolynne Snowden
  7. ^ Ely, Melvin Patrick, The Adventures of Amos 'N' Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon, Macmillan Free Press, 1991, pg. 100-101
  8. ^ Hall, Mordaunt (1929-02-28). "Hearts in Dixie (1929)". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-10-14. 
  9. ^ Hall, Mordaunt (1929-04-18). "Showboat (1929)". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-10-14. 
  10. ^ Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved November 10, 2015.
  11. ^ https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=RA4EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PT64&lpg=PT64&dq=%22stepin+fetchit%22+billboard&source=bl&ots=tqXnX-uB1D&sig=KU_mm3S5ayJ7XlubukyhdVL6GZw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjFv73wjLbKAhXDbxQKHTvnAvgQ6AEILTAH#v=onepage&q=%22stepin%20fetchit%22%20billboard&f=false
  12. ^ "Andy Rooney". CBS News. September 21, 2005. Archived from the original on 18 October 2008. Retrieved October 28, 2008. 
  13. ^ Sennwald, Andre (1935-06-24). "Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935)". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-10-14. 
  14. ^ Angry Young Man, The New York Times (April 6, 1969)
  15. ^ Pike killer felt violence only racial answer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 7, 1969)
  16. ^ Pike killer not on drugs, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 10, 1969)
  17. ^ "Comedian Stepin Fetchit, 83". The Philadelphia Inquirer. November 20, 1985. p. C–19. 
  18. ^ "Mass to Be Said Friday for Actor Stepin Fetchit". The Los Angeles Times. November 21, 1985. p. A30. Retrieved 2013-05-04. 
  19. ^ [1]
  20. ^ [2]

Sources[edit]

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