Best in a photo from Film Star Who's Who (1938)
May 27, 1916
Sunflower, Mississippi, U.S.
February 27, 1962 (aged 45)|
Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Cancer|
|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 at least 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.
Best played "Chattanooga Brown" in two Charlie Chan films—The Red Dragon in 1945 and Dangerous Money in 1946. 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.)
After a drug arrest ended his film career, he worked in television for a while and 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
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||Feet First||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|
|1932||The Monster Walks||Exodus||Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat|
|1934||Little Miss Marker||Dizzy Memphis||Uncredited|
|1934||West of the Pecos||Jonah||Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat|
|1934||Kentucky Kernels||Buckshot||Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat|
|1935||Murder on a Honeymoon||Willie, the Porter||Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat|
|1935||Annie Oakley||Second Cook||Uncredited|
|1935||The Littlest Rebel||James Henry, a Cary slave|
|1936||The Lady Consents||Sam||Uncredited|
|1936||Down the Stretch||Noah||Credited as William Best|
|1936||The Bride Walks Out||Smokie - at marriage bureau|
|1936||Night Waitress||Cars For Rent attendant||Uncredited|
|1936||Thank You, Jeeves!||Drowsy|
|1937||Breezing Home||Speed||Credited as William Best|
|1937||The Lady Fights Back||McTavish|
|1937||Meet the Missus||Mose - Shoe Shine Boy|
|1937||Deep South||Short film|
|1938||Crashing Hollywood||Train Porter||Uncredited|
|1938||Gold Is Where You Find It||Joshua|
|1938||Merrily We Live||George W. Jones|
|1938||Vivacious Lady||Train Porter|
|1938||Youth Takes a Fling||George|
|1939||Nancy Drew... Trouble Shooter||Apollo Johnson|
|1939||The Saint Strikes Back||Algernon||Uncredited|
|1939||Miracle on Main Street||Duke|
|1939||Blondie Brings Up Baby||Hotel Janitor||Uncredited|
|1940||Blondie on a Budget||Newspaper Boy||Uncredited|
|1940||The Ghost Breakers||Alex|
|1940||Who Killed Aunt Maggie?||Andrew|
|1940||I Take This Woman||Sambo|
|1941||Kisses for Breakfast||Arnold|
|1941||Nothing But the Truth||Samuel|
|1941||The Smiling Ghost||Clarence|
|1942||Whispering Ghosts||Euclid White Brown|
|1942||The Hidden Hand||Eustis the Chauffeur|
|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||The Girl Who Dared||Woodrow|
|1944||Home in Indiana|
|1945||Pillow to Post||Lucille|
|1945||Hold That Blonde||Willie Shelley|
|1945||The Red Dragon||Chattanooga Brown|
|1946||The Bride Wore Boots||Joe|
|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||Smart Woman||Train Porter||Uncredited|
|1949||Jiggs and Maggie in Jackpot Jitters||Willie||Uncredited|
|1950||High and Dizzy||Wesley|
|1950 to 1955||The Stu Erwin Show||Willie, The Handyman||30 episodes|
|1951||South of Caliente||Willie|
|1951 to 1952||Racket Squad||Janitor
|1952 to 1955||My Little Margie||Charlie||21 episodes|
|1954 to 1955||Waterfront||Billy Slocum/Willie Slocum||18 episodes|
- Littleton, Darryl (2006). Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-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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