This week’s open thread will focus on performers who made their living acting out African-American stereotypes and/or blackface.
Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (May 30, 1902 – November 19, 1985), better known by the stage name Stepin Fetchit, was an American comedian and film actor.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 the first black actor to receive featured screen credit in a film.
Perry’s typical film persona and stage name have long been controversial, and seen as illustrative of negative stereotypes of African-Americans. Seen through a modern lens, Perry’s “laziest man in the world” character can be “painfully racist” but also “subversive”.
Little is certain about his background other than that he was born in Key West, Florida to West Indian immigrants. He was the second child of Joseph Perry, a cigar maker from Jamaica (although some sources indicate the Bahamas) and Dora Monroe, a seamstress from Nassau. Both of his parents came to the United States in the 1890’s, 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.
His mother wanted him to be a dentist, so Perry was adopted by a quack dentist, where he blacked boots before running away at age twelve to join acarnival. He earned his living for a few years as a singer and tap dancer. By the age of twenty, Perry had become a vaudeville artist and the manager of a traveling carnival show. He performed a vaudeville act with a partner, the two of them known as “Step” and “Fetchit”. When Perry became a solo act he combined the two names, which later became his professional name
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”. According to his entry in Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia, he borrowed his screen name from a racehorse that won him some money in his pre-Hollywood days.
Perry 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, and they appeared in four films together, David Harum (1934), Judge Priest (1934), Steamboat ‘Round the Bend (1935), and The County Chairman (1935). Perry spawned imitators, most notably, Willie Best (Sleep ‘n Eat) and Mantan Moreland, the scared, wide-eyed manservant of Charlie Chan. (Perry actually played a manservant in the Chan series before Moreland – in 1935’s Charlie Chan in Egypt).
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 had guest-starred in an earlier 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.
While Perry was the first black actor to become a millionaire, he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1947, stating assets of $146 (equal to about $1,526 today). Perry reportedly converted to Islam in the 1960’s and became a friend of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Perry also found himself in conflict during his career with civil rights leaders who criticized him personally for the film roles he portrayed. Nonetheless, 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.
Perry was married three times: to Dorothy Stevenson, Winifred Johnson, and Bernice Sims. In 1930 his wife Dorothy gave birth to their son, Jemajo. With Winifred he had a second son in 1935: Donald, who later took his step-father’s name, Lambright. In April 1969, Donald Lambright traveled the Pennsylvania Turnpike shooting people. He injured fifteen and killed three before turning the gun on himself.
A stroke in 1976 ended Perry’s acting career, and he moved into the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. He died November 19, 1985 from pneumonia and heart failure at age 83. He was buried at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles.
Fetchit’s 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. It was also spoofed on an episode of The Golden Girls, in which Rose Nylund (Betty White) tells a story about two dancers from her hometown of St. Olaf, Minnesota, Adolf Stepp and Olga Fetchik, who became “the internationally renowned Scandinavian dance team of Stepp ‘n’ Fetchik”.
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.
Fetchit appeared in 54 films between 1925 and 1976, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category “Motion pictures”.