Best in a photo from Film Star Who's Who (1938)
May 27, 1916
Sunflower, Mississippi, U.S.
|Died||February 27, 1962 (aged 45)|
|Resting place||Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery|
|Other names||Sleep 'n' Eat|
Best was one of the first African American film actors and comedians to become well known. In the 21st century, his work, like that of Stepin Fetchit, is sometimes reviled because he was often called upon to play stereotypically lazy, illiterate, and/or simple-minded characters in films. Of the 124 films he appeared in, he received screen credit in at least 77, an unusual feat for an African American bit player.
Career as an actor
A native of Sunflower, Mississippi, Best reached Hollywood as a chauffeur for a vacationing couple. He decided to stay in the region and began his performing career with a traveling show in southern California. He was regularly hired as a character actor in Hollywood films after a talent scout discovered him on stage.
Willie Best appeared in more than one hundred films of the 1930s and 1940s. Although several sources state that for years he was billed only as "Sleep n' Eat", Best received credit under this moniker instead of his real name in only six movies: his first film as a bit player (Harold Lloyd's Feet First) and in Up Pops the Devil (1931), The Monster Walks (1932), Kentucky Kernels and West of the Pecos (both 1934), and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935). He thereafter usually received credit as "Willie Best" or "William Best".
Best was first loved as a great clown, then later in the 20th century reviled and pitied, before being forgotten in the history of film. Hal Roach called him one of the greatest talents he had ever met. Comedian Bob Hope similarly acclaimed him as "the best actor I know", while the two were working together in 1940 on The Ghost Breakers.
As a supporting actor, Best, like many black actors of his era, was regularly cast in domestic worker or service-oriented roles (though a few times he played the role echoing his previous occupation as a private chauffeur). He was often seen making a brief comic turn as a hotel, airline or train porter, as well as an elevator operator, custodian, butler, valet, waiter, deliveryman, and once as a launch pilot (in the 1939 movie Mr. Moto in Danger Island). Willie Best received screen credit most of the time, which was unusual for "bit players"; most in the 1930s and 1940s were not accorded due credit. This also happened to white actors in small roles, but black actors were not credited even when their roles were larger. In more than 80 of his movies, he was given a proper character name (as opposed to simple descriptions such as "room service waiter" or "shoe-shine boy"), beginning with his second film.
He also played the character of "Hipp" in three of RKO’s six Scattergood Baines films with Guy Kibbee: Scattergood Baines (1941), Scattergood Survives a Murder (1942), and Cinderella Swings It in 1943. Actor Paul White, who played a young version of Best’s "Hipp" in the first film, went on to play "Hipp" in the next three films; Best returned to the role in the last two.
Mantan Moreland, one of Willie Best's contemporaries, played "Birmingham Brown" the chauffeur in the Charlie Chan films. When Moreland took temporary leave of the series to tour in vaudeville, Willie Best took over Moreland's role (as "Chattanooga Brown") in The Red Dragon in 1945 and Dangerous Money in 1946.
After a drug arrest ended his film career, Best worked in television in the 1950s, almost exclusively at the Hal Roach studio. He became known to early TV audiences as Charlie, the elevator operator on CBS's My Little Margie, from 1953 to 1955. He also played Willie, the house servant/handyman and close friend of the title character of ABC’s The Trouble with Father, for its entire run from 1950 to 1955.:1109 He also played Billy Slocum in the syndicated drama Waterfront (1954).:1154 He played a surprising straight role, without comedy or dialect, in a Christmas-themed episode of Racket Squad.
Best died on February 27, 1962, at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, of cancer at age 45. He was buried (by the Motion Picture Fund) on March 5, 1962, at Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery.
Best's "Sleep n' Eat" moniker surfaced again in the 2000 motion picture satire Bamboozled, directed by Spike Lee. In the film a "twenty-first-century minstrel show" is televised starring two African American performers, one of whom (portrayed by Tommy Davidson) plays a character named "Sleep n' Eat". In a nod to one of Best's most respected contemporaries, his on-stage counterpart is named "Mantan".
|1930||Ladies of Leisure||George - the Elevator Operator||Uncredited|
|1930||Feet First||Charcoal - Janitor||Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat|
|1931||The Virtuous Husband||Luftus||Alternative title: What Wives Don't Want|
|1931||Up Pops the Devil||Laundryman||Uncredited|
|1931||The Guilty Generation||Club Merlin Doorman||Uncredited|
|1932||The Monster Walks||Exodus||Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat|
|1932||Disorderly Conduct||Man at Police Station||Uncredited|
|1934||Little Miss Marker||Dizzy Memphis||Uncredited|
|1934||Kentucky Kernels||Buckshot||Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat|
|1934||West of the Pecos||Jonah||Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat|
|1935||Murder on a Honeymoon||Willie, the Porter||Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat|
|1935||Jalna||Sam, the Janitor||Uncredited|
|1935||Annie Oakley||Second Cook||Uncredited|
|1935||To Beat the Band||Elevator Operator||Uncredited|
|1935||The Littlest Rebel||James Henry, a Cary slave|
|1936||Muss 'Em Up||Janitor at Spivali's Bar||Uncredited|
|1936||The Lady Consents||Sam||Uncredited|
|1936||Two in Revolt||Eph|
|1936||Murder on a Bridle Path||High Pockets|
|1936||The Bride Walks Out||Smokie – at marriage bureau|
|1936||The Green Pastures||Henry - the Angel||Uncredited|
|1936||Down the Stretch||Noah||Credited as William Best|
|1936||Thank You, Jeeves!||Drowsy|
|1936||Make Way for a Lady||William Townley - Jackson's Chauffeur||Uncredited|
|1936||Night Waitress||Cars For Rent attendant||Uncredited|
|1937||We Who Are About to Die||Airport Porter||Uncredited|
|1937||Breezing Home||Speed||Credited as William Best|
|1937||You Can't Buy Luck||Airline Porter||Uncredited|
|1937||Meet the Missus||Mose – Shoe Shine Boy|
|1937||The Lady Fights Back||McTavish|
|1937||Deep South||Short film|
|1938||Crashing Hollywood||Train Porter||Uncredited|
|1938||Everybody's Doing It||Jasper - Elevator Operator||Uncredited|
|1938||Gold Is Where You Find It||Joshua|
|1938||Merrily We Live||George W. Jones|
|1938||Vivacious Lady||Train Porter|
|1938||I'm From the City||Train Porter||Uncredited|
|1938||Youth Takes a Fling||George|
|1938||Straight Place and Show||Hannibal||Uncredited|
|1938||Spring Madness||Hotel Porter||Uncredited|
|1939||The Saint Strikes Back||Algernon||Uncredited|
|1939||Mr. Moto in Danger Island||Launch Pilot||Uncredited|
|1939||Nancy Drew... Trouble Shooter||Apollo Johnson|
|1939||Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation||Driver||Uncredited|
|1939||Way Down South||Chimney Sweep||Uncredited|
|1939||Blackmail||Bunny - the Janitor||Uncredited|
|1939||At the Circus||Redcap||Uncredited|
|1939||Blondie Brings Up Baby||Hotel Janitor||Uncredited|
|1939||The Covered Trailer||Baltimore|
|1939||Private Detective||Norton's Valet|
|1939||Miracle on Main Street||Duke|
|1939||Slightly Honorable||Art, the Elevator Operator|
|1940||I Take This Woman||Sambo|
|1940||Blondie on a Budget||Newspaper Boy||Uncredited|
|1940||The Ghost Breakers||Alex|
|1940||Money and the Woman||George Washington Jones, Dave's Servant|
|1940||Who Killed Aunt Maggie?||Andrew|
|1941||Flight from Destiny||George|
|1941||The Body Disappears||Willie||Credited as Willie Best|
|1941||The Lady from Cheyenne||George|
|1941||Kisses for Breakfast||Arnold|
|1941||Highway West||Bub Wellington|
|1941||The Smiling Ghost||Clarence|
|1941||Nothing But the Truth||Samuel|
|1941||The Body Disappears||Willie|
|1942||Whispering Ghosts||Euclid White Brown|
|1942||Maisie Gets Her Man||Sam, Room Service Waiter||Uncredited|
|1942||A-Haunting We Will Go||Waiter|
|1942||Scattergood Survives a Murder||Hipp|
|1942||The Hidden Hand||Eustis the Chauffeur|
|1943||The Powers Girl||Men's Room Attendant||Uncredited|
|1943||Cinderella Swings It||Hipp|
|1943||Cabin in the Sky||Second Idea Man|
|1943||Thank Your Lucky Stars||Soldier||Uncredited|
|1944||The Adventures of Mark Twain||George, Twain's Butler||Uncredited|
|1944||Home in Indiana||Mo' Rum||Uncredited|
|1944||The Girl Who Dared||Woodrow|
|1944||The Mark of the Whistler||Men's Room Attendant||Uncredited|
|1944||Music for Millions||Red Cap||Uncredited|
|1945||The Monster and the Ape||Flash||Serial|
|1945||Pillow to Post||Lucille|
|1945||Hold That Blonde||Willie Shelley|
|1945||She Wouldn't Say Yes||Porter||Uncredited|
|1945||The Red Dragon||Chattanooga Brown|
|1946||The Bride Wore Boots||Joe|
|1946||The Face of Marble||Piano Delivery Man||Uncredited|
|1946||Dangerous Money||Chattanooga Brown||Alternative title: Charlie Chan in Dangerous Money|
|1947||Suddenly, It's Spring||Porter on train|
|1947||The Red Stallion||Jackson|
|1948||Half Past Midnight||Andy Jones|
|1948||Smart Woman||Train Porter||Uncredited|
|1949||Jiggs and Maggie in Jackpot Jitters||Willie||Uncredited|
|1950||High and Dizzy||Wesley||Short|
|1950-1955||The Stu Erwin Show||Willie, The Handyman||30 episodes|
|1951||South of Caliente||Willie|
|1951-1952||Racket Squad||Janitor / Cleaning Man||2 episodes|
|1952-1955||My Little Margie||Charlie||21 episodes|
|1954-1955||Waterfront||Billy Slocum / Willie Slocum||18 episodes, (final appearance)|
- Littleton, Darryl (2006). Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How black Americans Taught Us to Laugh. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 46. ISBN 9781557836809. Retrieved 5 August 2018.
- "Willie Best - About This Person - Movies & TV - NYTimes.com". Retrieved 24 March 2016.
- "Movie Review - The Smiling Ghost - Poor Ghost - NYTimes.com". Retrieved 24 March 2016.
- Harry and Michael Medved, Son of Golden Turkey Awards, p. 28, Angus and Robertson Publishers, Australia, 1986
- "Movie Review – The Ghost Breakers – THE SCREEN; 'Ghost Breakers,' a Comic Thriller, at Paramount – Spy Pictures at the Rialto and Palace – NYTimes.com". Retrieved 24 March 2016.
- "Willie Best". IMDb. Retrieved 24 March 2016.
- Terrace, Vincent (2011). Encyclopedia of Television Shows, 1925 through 2010 (2nd ed.). Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. pp. 732–733. ISBN 978-0-7864-6477-7.
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