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Spencer Williams (actor): Wikis


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Spencer Williams

Alvin Childress, Tim Moore and Spencer Williams,
1951 publicity photo for Amos 'n Andy
Born July 14, 1893(1893-07-14)
Vidalia, Louisiana
Died December 13, 1969 (aged 76)
West Los Angeles, California
Occupation Television actor, film producer, writer, film director

Spencer Williams (July 14, 1893 – December 13, 1969) was an African American actor and filmmaker. He was best known for playing Andy in the Amos 'n Andy television show and for the directing the 1941 race film The Blood of Jesus.


Early career

Williams (who was sometimes billed as Spencer Williams Jr.) was born in Vidalia, Louisiana. He moved to New York City when he was a teenager and secured work as call boy for the theatrical impresario Oscar Hammerstein. During this period, he received mentoring as a comedian from the African American vaudeville star Bert Williams.[1]

Williams served in the U.S. Army during World War I, where he rose to the rank of sergeant.[2] During the 1920s, he began to snag bit roles in motion pictures, including a part in the 1928 Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill, Jr.[3] He teamed with Lonnie Jackson to record the song "It Feels So Good," which was released on the Okeh Race Records label in 1929.[1]

Also in 1929, Williams was hired by producer Al Christie to create the dialogue for a series of two-reel comedy films featuring all-black casts. The films, which played on racial stereotypes and used grammatically tortured dialogue, included The Framing of the Shrew, The Lady Fare, Melancholy Dame, Music Hath Charms, and Oft in the Silly Night.[1]

Film directing

During the 1930s, Williams secured small roles in race films, a genre of low-budget, independently-produced films with all-black casts that were created solely for exhibition in racially segregated theaters. Williams also created two screenplays for race film production: the Western film Harlem Rides the Range and the horror-comedy Son of Ingagi, both released in 1939.[3]

Alfred N. Sack, whose Dallas, Texas-based company Sack Amusement Enteprises produced and distributed race films, was impressed with Williams’ screenplay for Son of Ingagi and offered him the opportunity to write and direct a feature film.[3] At that time, the only African American filmmaker was the self-financing writer/director/producer Oscar Micheaux.[4]

Williams’ resulting film, The Blood of Jesus (1941), was produced on a $5,000 budget using non-professional actors for his cast. The film, a religious fantasy about the struggle for a dying’ Christian woman’s soul, was a major commercial success. Sack declared The Blood of Jesus was “possibly the most successful” race film ever made[5], and Williams was invited to direct additional films for Sack Amusement Enterprises. In the next six years, Williams directed Brother Martin: Servant of Jesus (1942), Marching On! (1943), Go Down Death (1944), Of One Blood (1944), Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946), The Girl in Room 20 (1946), Beale Street Mama (1947) and Juke Joint (1947).[1]

Following the production of Juke Joint, Williams retired from the entertainment industry. He relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he joined Amos T. Hall in founding the American Business and Industrial College.[2]

Amos 'n Andy

In 1948, U.S. radio comedians Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll were planning to take their long-running comedy program Amos 'n Andy to television. The program focused on the misadventures of a group of African Americans in the Harlem section of New York City. Gosden and Correll were white, but played the black lead characters using racially stereotypical speech patterns. They had previously played the roles in blackface make-up for the 1930 film Check and Double Check, but for the television version they opted to use an African American cast.[6]

Gosden and Correll conducted an extensive national talent search to cast the television version of Amos 'n Andy. News of the search reached Tulsa, where Williams was sought out by a local radio station that was aware of his previous work in race films.[7] Williams successfully auditioned for Gosden and Correll, and he was cast as Andrew H. Brown. Williams was joined in the cast by New York theater actor Alvin Childress, who was cast as Amos, and vaudeville comedian Tim Moore, who was cast as their friend George “Kingfish” Stevens.[6]

Amos 'n Andy was the first U.S. television program with an all-black cast, running for 78 episodes on CBS from 1951 to 1953.[8] However, the program created considerable controversy, with the NAACP going to federal court to achieve an injunction to halt its premiere. After the show completed its network run, CBS syndicated Amos 'n Andy to local U.S. television stations and sold the program to television networks in other countries. The program was eventually pulled from release in 1966, under pressure from civil rights groups that stated it offered a negatively distorted view of African American life.[8]

After Amos 'n Andy ended its network run, Williams made very few professional appearances. His last credited role was as a hospital orderly in the 1962 Italian horror production L'Orribile Segreto del Dottor Hitchcock.[9]

Career re-evaluation

Williams died of a kidney ailment on December 13, 1969, at the Sawtelle Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles, California. At the time of his death, news coverage focused solely on his work as a television actor, since few white filmgoers knew of his race films. The New York Times obituary for Williams cited Amos 'n Andy but made no mention of his work as a film director.[10]

Recognition for Williams’ work as a film director came years after his death, when film historians began to rediscover the race films. Some of Williams’ films were considered lost until they were located in a Tyler, Texas, warehouse in 1983.[11] One film directed by Williams, his 1942 feature Brother Martin: Servant of Jesus, is still considered lost.[12]

Most film historians consider The Blood of Jesus to be Williams’ crowning achievement as a filmmaker. Dave Kehr of The New York Times called the film “magnificent”[13] and Time magazine counted it among its “25 Most Important Films on Race.”[14] In 1991, The Blood of Jesus became the first race film to be added to the U.S. National Film Registry.[1]

Film critic Armond White named both The Blood of Jesus and Go Down Death as being “among the most spiritually adventurous movies ever made. They conveyed the moral crisis of the urban/country, blues/spiritual musical dichotomies through their documentary style and fable-like narratives.”[15]

However, Williams’ films have also been the subject of criticism. Richard Corliss, writing in Time magazine, stated: “Aesthetically, much of Williams' work vacillates between inert and abysmal. The rural comedy of Juke Joint is logy, as if the heat had gotten to the movie; even the musical scenes, featuring North Texas jazzman Red Calhoun, move at the turtle tempo of Hollywood's favorite black of the period, Stepin Fetchit. And there were technical gaffes galore: in a late-night scene in Dirty Gertie, actress Francine Everett clicks on a bedside lamp and the screen actually darkens for a moment before full lights finally come up. Yet at least one Williams film, his debut Blood of Jesus (1941), has a naive grandeur to match its subject.”[4]

To date, there has been no biography devoted solely to Williams’ life and career. Jacqueline Stewart, an associate professor in the Department of Radio,Television and Film at Northwestern University, is researching and writing a new book on Williams.[16]


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