Fetchit in 1959
Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry
May 30, 1902
Key West, Florida, U.S.
|Died||November 19, 1985 (aged 83)|
|Resting place||Calvary Cemetery, Los Angeles|
Dorothy Stevenson (1929–1931)
Bernice Sims (1951–1984) (her death)
Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (May 30, 1902 – November 19, 1985), better known by the stage name Stepin Fetchit, was an American vaudevillian, comedian and film actor of Jamaican and Bahamian descent, considered to be the first black actor to have a successful film career. His highest profile was during the 1930s when in films and on stage, his persona of Stepin Fetchit was billed as "the Laziest Man in the World".
Perry parlayed the Fetchit persona into a successful film career, becoming the first black actor to earn a million dollars. He was also the first black actor to receive featured screen credit in a film.
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 African Americans and Americans at large as an embarrassing and harmful anachronism, echoing and perpetuating negative stereotypes. The Stepin Fetchit character has undergone a re-evaluation by some scholars, who view him as an embodiment of the trickster archetype.
Little is certain about Perry's background other than that he was born in Key West, Florida, to West Indian immigrants. 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, Bahamas. 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.
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.
In his teens, Perry became 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.
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, a subplot that was decidedly an on-screen rarity for African-American actors working among a white cast.
For his role as Joe in the 1929 part-talkie film version of Show Boat, 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. Also Hal Roach, in 1930 signed him to a film contract to appear in 9 Our Gang episodes for the 1930 to 1931 season and his debut was on their final 1929-30 film A Tough Winter. He was to be teamed with the gang on various plots but after the release of A Tough Winter, for unknown reasons his contract was canceled. Had he stayed with Our Gang, the series would have turned out very differently.
By the mid-1930s, Perry was a bona fide film star, and was the first black actor to become a millionaire. Fetchit appeared in 44 films between 1927 and 1939. In 1940, Perry temporarily stopped appearing in films, having been frustrated in his attempt to get equal pay and billing with his white costars. 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 (equal to about $1,638 today) resulting in a return to vaudeville appearing at the Anderson Free Fair in 1949 alongside Singer's Midgets
He 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 hour-long documentary, Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed, written by Andy Rooney (for which he would receive an Emmy Award) 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.
Awards and honors
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.
Perry spawned imitators, such as 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.)
Perry appeared in one 1930 Our Gang short subject, A Tough Winter, at the end of the 1929–30 season. Perry signed a contract to star with the gang in 9 films for the 1930-31 season and be part of the Our Gang series. But for some unknown reason the contract fell through, and the gang continued without Perry. Previous to Perry entering films, the Our Gang shorts had employed several black child actors including Allen Hoskins, Jannie Hoskins, Ernest Morrison and Eugene Jackson. In the sound Our Gang era black actors Matthew Beard and Billie Thomas were featured. The black performers' personas in Our Gang shorts were the polar opposites of Perry's persona.
In the 2005 book Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry, African American critic Mel Watkins argued that the character of Stepin Fetchit was not truly lazy or simple-minded, but instead a prankster who deliberately tricked his white employers so that they would do the work instead of him. This technique, which developed during American slavery, was referred to as "putting on old massa," and it was a kind of con art with which black audiences of the time would have been familiar.
In 1929, Perry married 17-year-old Dorothy Stevenson. She gave birth to their son, Jemajo, on September 12, 1930. In 1931, Dorothy filed for divorce stating that Perry had broken her nose, jaw and arm with "his fists and a broomstick." A few weeks after their divorce was granted Dorothy told a reporter she hoped someone would "just beat the devil out of him," as he had done to her. When Dorothy contracted tuberculosis in 1933, Perry moved her to Arizona for treatment. She died in September 1934.
Perry had reportedly married Winifred Johnson in 1937, but there is no record of their union. Winifred gave birth to a son she named Donald Martin Perry on May 21, 1938. Their relationship ended soon after Donald's birth. According to Winifred's brother Stretch Johnson, their father intervened after Perry knocked Winifred down the stairs and broke her nose. In 1941, Perry was arrested after Winifred filed a suit for child support. When he was released from jail he told reporters, "Winnie and I were never married. It was all a publicity stunt. I want you and everybody else to know that that is not my baby. Winnie knows the baby isn't mine but she's trying to be smart." Winifred admitted that they weren't legally married but she insisted Perry was her son's father. The court ruled in her favor and ordered Perry to pay $12 a week for the child's support. Donald later took his step-father's surname, Lambright.
On April 5, 1969, Donald Lambright traveled the Pennsylvania Turnpike shooting people. It was reported that he injured sixteen and killed four, including his wife, with an M1 Carbine and a .30-caliber Marlin 336 carbine before turning one of the rifles on himself. Lambright's death was ruled a murder-suicide, however the circumstances were questioned by his daughter and discussed at length in a self-published book in 2005 about Stepin Fetchit. Even Lincoln Perry himself once reported in a Los Angeles Times interview his belief that his son was set up. It was believed that Lambright's involvement with the black power movement at the peak of the COINTELPRO program was related to his death. A "mysterious long-haired white man" reported at the scene of the crime was thought to have been involved in some way. Ultimately, his death was ruled a murder-suicide when the white man wasn't found. Perry never provided child support for Lambright and they only met two years before his son's violent death.
Perry married Bernice Sims on October 15, 1951. Although they separated by the mid-1950s, they remained married for the rest of their lives. Bernice died on January 9, 1985.
Perry suffered a stroke in 1976, ending his acting career; he then moved into the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. He died on November 19, 1985, from pneumonia and heart failure at the age of 83. He was buried at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles with a Catholic funeral Mass.
- The Mysterious Stranger (1925)
- In Old Kentucky (1927) – Highpockets
- The Devil's Skipper (1928) – Slave's Husband
- Nameless Men (1928)
- The Tragedy of Youth (1928) – Porter
- Kid's Clever (1929) – Negro Man
- The Ghost Talks (1929) – Christopher Lee
- Hearts in Dixie (1929) – Gummy
- Show Boat (1929) – Joe
- Thru Different Eyes (1929) – Janitor
- Innocents of Paris (1929) – Bit Role (uncredited)
- Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 (1929) – Swifty
- Salute (1929) – Smoke Screen
- Big Time (1929) – Eli
- Cameo Kirby (1930) – Croup
- The Big Fight (1930) – Spot
- Swing High (1930) – Sam
- La Fuerza del Querer (1930) – Spot
- A Tough Winter (1930, Short) – Stepin
- The Prodigal (1931) – Hokey
- Wild Horse (1931) – Stepin
- The Galloping Ghost (1931) – Baxter College Locker Room Attendant
- Neck and Neck (1931) – The Hustler
- Carolina (1934) – Scipio
- David Harum (1934) – Sylvester Swifty
- Stand Up and Cheer! (1934) – Stepin Fetchit
- The World Moves On (1934) – Dixie
- Judge Priest (1934) – Jeff Poindexter
- Marie Galante (1934) – 'Pacific Gardens' Waiter (uncredited)
- Bachelor of Arts (1934) – Bulga
- The Littlest Rebel (1935)
- Helldorado (1935) – Ulysses
- The County Chairman (1935) – Sass
- One More Spring (1935) – Zoo Attendant
- Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935) – Snowshoes
- Hot Tip (1935) – Cook
- Steamboat Round the Bend (1935) – Jonah
- The Virginia Judge (1935) – Spasm Johnson
- 36 Hours to Kill (1936) – Flash
- Dimples (1936) – Cicero
- On the Avenue (1937) – Herman
- Love Is News (1937) – Penrod
- Fifty Roads to Town (1937) – Percy
- His Exciting Night (1938) – Casper, the Baker Butler
- Zenobia (1939) – Zero
- Open the Door Richard (1945)
- Big Timers (1945, Short) – Porter / Specialty Act
- Swingtime Jamboree (1946)
- Mouse Cleaning (1948 MGM Tom and Jerry cartoon short subject, uncredited voice; Fetchit's only animation role)
- I Ain't Gonna Open That Door (1947, Short) – Richard
- Miracle in Harlem (1948) – 'Swifty', the Handyman
- Harlem Follies of 1949 (1950)
- Bend of the River (1952) – Adam
- The Sun Shines Bright (1953) – Jeff Poindexter
- Inquiring Nuns (1968, cameo appearance)
- Cutter (1972, TV movie) – Shoeshine Man
- Muhammad Ali, the Greatest (1974)
- Amazing Grace (1974, cameo appearance) – Cousin Lincoln
- Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (1975, archival footage)
- Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976, cameo appearance) – Dancing Butler (final film role)
- Amos 'n' Andy
- Willie Best
- Jar Jar Binks
- Buckwheat, a character played by Billie Thomas in the 1930s U.S. short film series Our Gang
- Billy Kersands
- Mantan Moreland
- "Old Aunt Jemima"
- Fred Toones
- Uncle Tom
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