HELLO AMERICA!—I am so grateful for all the mail received from countries such as Australia, India, England, France and Germany all devoted fans of this confidential column. They all seem fascinated hearing about some of the most famous, at times outrageous Hollywood stars responsible for making the entertainment what it is today. When I first arrived in town in 1952 from Richmond, Indiana, escaping from the KKK who fired-bombed my dorm room because I was voted the first Black class president of Earlham College; sitting on a Greyhound Bus, there was time to reflect on what I had just experienced.
Suddenly, I remembered when my grandmother when I was six years old took me to Augusta, Georgia to visit relatives. Then one morning while there, she woke me up and said, “Get Dressed, I want to show you something.” She took me by the hand and we slowly walked in the wooded area not far from the house. Then suddenly we stopped several feet from a very tall tree; grandmother then asked me to look up. When I did, she pointed to a naked blood stained Black man hanging from the tree! With eyes opened wide, mouth quivering and not believing what I was witnessing, my body began to shake uncontrollably as I held tight on my grandmother’s arm when she whispered, “Don’t you ever forget this moment, boy. Don’t you ever!” I never did.
The experience shaped my awareness of the challenges I might be forced to face through the years, especially when desiring so deeply in becoming a notable part of the entertainment world. Of course, growing up in Morton, a small town 10 miles from Philadelphia was nothing like Georgia, however, there were quiet restrictions that wasn’t noticed very much, especially by the very young, and I was one of those. Attending an all-Black grammar school, Phyllis Wheatley, was an advantage realized much later as I received more education i.e., high school and college. My earlier Black teachers taught us about great artists such as Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bill Robinson, those who had reached international acclaim already. I was seriously affected by the artistry of these people.
One of my readers from Chicago asked if I had always dreamed of coming to Hollywood. I quickly responded with, “NO, it was the last place I wanted to ended up. It was always Broadway!” After all, I was aware of some of the great plays and musicals that so many gifted actors and singers headlined there. I pictured being a part of the great Broadway family.
Hollywood films I enjoyed watching but most of the actors of color were seen as maids, servants, with slave mentality and I could not see myself in one of those roles. Bowing, and singing slave songs of sorrow was something inconceivable for me. However, I did enjoy watching Stepin Fetchit, Willy Best, the Amos ‘n’ Andy group of character actors, Hedi McDaniels, Butterfly McQueen and so many others, but I couldn’t see myself as one of the characters they represented.
Then it happened, during my first year attending U.S.C., I auditioned for the now very famous film “Carmen Jones,” directed and produced by controversial director/producer Otto Preminger. It would star Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey and Brock Peters. The role I would audition to play was T-Bone. The irony of the story is that Preminger insisted I play the comic character like all the Yazza Boss character Hollywood expected.
That was the beginning of my Hollywood work history. Fortunately, it served as the last time I was expected to portray a character I deeply resented. With the help and support of stars like Bette Davis, Ethel Waters, Shirley Booth, Nick Stewart and so many others, the doors of opportunity opened in such a beautiful way, it was possible for artistic experimentation. Something all actors need in order to spread their wings and fly high.