Best in a photo from Film Star Who's Who (1938)
May 27, 1916
Sunflower, Mississippi, U.S.
|Died||February 27, 1962
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 a 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.
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 his next five films (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 alternately loved as a great clown, then later in the 20th century reviled and pitied, before being virtually forgotten in the passage of time. Hal Roach called him one of the greatest talents he had ever met. Similarly, comedian Bob Hope acclaimed Best as "the best actor I know," while the two were working together in 1940 on The Ghost Breakers.
As a bit player, Best, like many black actors of his era, was regularly cast in domestic worker or service-oriented roles (a few times he played the role that echoed his previous occupation—that of a private chauffeur). He often was seen making a brief comedic turn as a hotel, airline or train porter, but also as an elevator operator, custodian, butler, valet, waiter, deliverymen—and at least once as a launch pilot (in 1939’s Mr. Moto in Danger Island).
Best received screen credit most of the time, which was unusual for bit players; most in the 1930s and '40s did not gain such credit. Walter Brennan, for example, made 125 movies between 1930 and 1939 but was credited on only 57 of them.
Best’s career was also unusual because he was regularly—in over 80 of his movies—given a proper character name (as opposed to simple descriptions like ‘room service waiter’ or ‘shoe shine boy’), starting with his second film. By comparison, Lucille Ball wasn’t billed with a proper character name until her 14th film, and some bit players like Robert Dudley and Ethelreda Leopold were only rarely billed with anything more than a character description.
Best played “Chattanooga Brown” in two Charlie Chan films, 1945’s The Red Dragon and 1946’s Dangerous Money. He also played the character of “Hipp” in three of RKO’s six Scattergood Baines films with Guy Kibbee: 1941’s Scattergood Baines, 1942’s Scattergood Survives a Murder, and 1943’s Cinderella Swings It. (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.)
Best died on February 27, 1962, at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, of cancer at age forty-five. 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 Bride Walks Out||Smokie - at marriage bureau|
|1936||Thank You, Jeeves!||Drowsy|
|1937||Breezing Home||Speed||Credited as William Best|
|1937||The Lady Fights Back||McTavish|
|1937||Deep South||Short film|
|1938||Merrily We Live||George W. Jones|
|1938||Gold Is Where You Find It||Joshua|
|1938||Youth Takes a Fling||George|
|1938||Vivacious Lady||Train Porter|
|1939||Nancy Drew... Trouble Shooter||Apollo Johnson|
|1939||Miracle on Main Street||Duke|
|1940||The Ghost Breakers||Alex||Credited as Willie Best|
|1940||Who Killed Aunt Maggie?||Andrew|
|1940||I Take This Woman||Sambo|
|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|
|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|
- New York Times
- New York Times
- Harry and Michael Medved, Son of Golden Turkey Awards, pg.28, Angus and Robertson Publishers, Australia, 1986
- New York Times
- The Internet Movie Database entry for Willie Best
- The Internet Movie Database entry for Lucille Ball
- The Internet Movie Database entry for Robert Dudley
- The Internet Movie Database entry for Ethelreda Leopold
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Willie Best.|