It’s hump day POU Family! This week’s theme is about African-Americans who became famous for depicting stereotypes and blackface.
William “Willie” Best (May 27, 1916 – February 27, 1962), sometimes known as Sleep n’ Eat, was an American television and film actor.
Best was one of the first well-known African American film actors and comedians, although his work, like that of Stepin Fetchit, is today 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 of them, an unusual feat for a bit player.
A native of Sunflower, Mississippi, Best had arrived in Hollywood as chauffeur for a vacationing couple, and began his performing career with a traveling show in southern California. He became a regular character actor in Hollywood films after a talent scout discovered him on stage.
Best appeared in more than one hundred films of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Although several sources state that for years he was only billed as “Sleep n’ Eat,” Best received credit under this moniker instead of his real name in only five movies: his first film as a bit player (Harold Lloyd’s Feet First) and his next four films that followed (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 reviled, then pitied, finally virtually forgotten. Hal Roach called him one of the greatest talents he had ever met. In a similar gesture, Bob Hope acclaimed him as, “the best actor I know,” as the two worked together on The Ghost Breakers in 1940.
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), and was usually seen making a brief comedic appearance as a hotel, airline or train porter; but also as elevator operators, custodians, butlers, valets, waiters, deliverymen – and at least once as a launch pilot (in 1939’s Mr. Moto in Danger Island).
Best’s work as a bit player was unusual in that he received screen credit most of the time. The largest part of bit players in 1930’s and ’40’s did not. 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.”