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Stepin Fetchit (May 30, 1902–November 19, 1985) was the stage name of American comedian and film actor Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. Perry parlayed the Fetchit persona into a successful film career, eventually becoming a millionaire, the first black actor in history to do so. He was also the first black actor to receive a screen credit.[1]

Perry's typical film persona and stage name have long been controversial, and seen as synonymous with negative stereotypes of African-Americans. However, a newer interpretation of his film persona contends Perry was ultimately subversive of the status quo.[2]

Contents

Early life

Little is certain about his background other than that he was born in Key West, Florida to West Indian immigrants.[1] He was the second child of Joseph Perry, a cigar maker from Jamaica (although some sources indicate the Bahamas) and his mother, Dora Monroe, a seamstress from Nassau. 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.[1] At age twelve, he ran away from home, joined a carnival, and earned his living for a few years as a singer and tap dancer.[1]

Career

Perry began entertaining in his teens as a comic character actor. His stage name was a contraction of "step and fetch it", or perhaps, "step in [and] fetch it." He 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.

Perry starred in Hearts in Dixie (1929), one of the first studio productions to boast a predominantly African-American 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.

Perry was good friends with fellow comic actor Will Rogers,[1] and they appeared in three films together, David Harum (1934), Judge Priest (1934) and The County Chairman (1935).

Perry did not invent the stereotype with which his stage name became synonymous, but Stepin Fetchit's image was used to popularize it. Many black film characters were based on Stepin Fetchit, including Matthew Beard's "Stymie" in the Our Gang comedies. (Perry repaid the reference: he guest-starred in an Our Gang short, A Tough Winter, intended as the pilot film for a Fetchit short subject series producer Hal Roach had planned, but which never materialized.)

The Stepin Fetchit image came to be seen as sufficiently degrading that Perry's films are rarely shown, and have not received widespread video release. On the rare occasions the films are shown, most of his segments are deleted.

Later life

While Perry was the first black actor to become a millionaire, he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1947, stating assets of $146.[1] Perry spawned imitators, most notably, Willie Best (Sleep 'n Eat) and Mantan Moreland, the scared, wide-eyed manservant of Charlie Chan (Perry played a manservant in a 1935 film, Charlie Chan in Egypt, before any appearance by Moreland).

Perry reportedly converted to Islam in the 1960s[1] and became a friend of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.[1] Perry also found himself in conflict during his career with civil rights leaders who criticized him personally for the film roles he portrayed. However, to some extent Perry had the last laugh: in 1976, the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP awarded him a Special NAACP Image Award. Two years after that, Perry was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

His stage name was parodied by the late 1960s/early 1970s counterculture comedy duo The Congress of Wonders, portraying a young Russian lad named Stepney Fetchnik on their September 1970 comedy album Revolting.

He appeared in 54 films between 1925 and 1976, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category "Motion pictures". A stroke in 1976[1] ended Perry's acting career, and he moved into the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital.[1] He died November 19, 1985 from pneumonia at age 83.

Filmography

  • On the Avenue (1937)
  • Love Is News (1937)
  • Fifty Roads to Town (1937)
  • His Exciting Night (1938)
  • Zenobia (1939)
  • Open the Door Richard (1945)
  • Big Timers (1945)

See also

References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Lamparski, Richard (1982). Whatever Became Of ...? Eighth Series. New York: Crown Publishers. pp. 106-7. ISBN 0-517-54855-0.  
  2. ^ Roy Hurst (March 6, 2006). "Stepin Fetchit, Hollywood's First Black Film Star". National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5245089. Retrieved 2007-07-30.  

Sources

  • Watkins, Mel (2005). Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry. Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-375-42382-6.  
  • Clark, Champ (2005). Shuffling to Ignominy: The Tragedy of Stepin Fetchit. iUniverse. ISBN 0-595-37125-6.  

External links

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