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Stepin Fetchit 1902-1985

Stepin Fetchit 1902-1985 


Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry claimed a birth date of May 30, 1902 but may have been born as early as 1892. Perry was born in Key West, Florida to West Indian immigrant parents.

Perry ran away from home at 14 to join the vaudeville circuit and adopted the stage name of "Stepin Fetchit," taken from his lucky racehorse. Fetchit found his way to Hollywood in the mid 1920s and made his screen debut in The Mysterious Stranger (1927). Fetchit made an immediate impact in Hollywood and very early on in his career was hailed as one of the greatest screen comedians.

Stepin Fetchit's act continued the "trickster" tradition of slaves: outwitting their oppressors by pretending to be slow-witted and lazy, and thereby exploiting whites' sense of superiority. He became a very wealthy man portraying "the laziest human being in the world," the quintessential coon; shuffling, mumbling, slacking an dozing off whenever he could, his heavy eyelids and loose lower lop forever dangling, scratching his shaved head in befuddlement whenever a White actor upbraided or barked orders at him, as they did all the time. 

He was a living cartoon coon--and the animated cartoons of his day often featured a thinly veiled Stepin Fetchit caricature that was hardly more exaggerated than his own shtick. He also spawned a legion of imitators.

Over the next 50 years, Fetchit appeared in over forty films, some of them include In Old Kentucky (1927), Hearts in Dixie (1929), The Galloping Ghost (1931), The Wild Horse (1931), Judge Priest (1934), The Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), The Big Timers (1954), Miracle in Harlem (1948), and The Sun Shines Bright (1953). 

Stepin Fetchit dancing in Carolina (1934)

Stepin Fetchit dancing in Carolina (1934)

In the early 1930s he was the best known and most successful black actor working in Hollywood. At a time when contracts for Black actors were unheard of, Fetchit was signed, then dropped, then spectacularly re-signed by Fox Pictures. From 1929 to 1935, he appeared in some twenty-six films. Often working in as many as four movies at a time, Fetchit was the first Black actor to received featured billing, and special scenes were often written into pictures for him. He popularized the dim-witted, tongue-tied stammer and the phenomenal slow-lazyman shuffle.

Fox Pictures, in promoting their first black star, did much to exploit his private life. With Fetchit's own penchant for generating news, stories circulated of his flamboyant high style of life: his six houses, his sixteen Chinese servants, his lavish parties, his twelve cars -- One was a champagne-pink Cadillac with his name emblazoned on the side in neon lights.

Stepin Fetchit became the first African American actor to become a millionaire, but he mishandled his fortune through lavish over-spending and was bankrupt by 1947. He owned 12 automobiles and had 16 servants at the height of his fame.

Like Bert Williams, Perry was of Caribbean descent, and in private held himself somewhat superior both to the Black Americans he caricatured and to the ignorant White folks who laughed at his routines. As docile as Fetchit was on screen, Perry himself was demanding and argumentative with directors and producers. His penchant for drunken brawls and teenage girls made for lurid tabloid copy and earned denunciations from Black civic and church leaders. Despite his huge popularity with audiences, White and Black, he had made himself a Hollywood pariah by 1936.


Stepin Fetchit in Miracle in Harlem (1948)


In the 1940s, his career in mainstream "white" cinema was essentially over, and he crossed over into "race" films, movies made by and for African American audiences, where he essentially played the same shtick. By 1960, he was a charity case in Chicago.

Perry declined through decades of bitter obscurity, watching the name Stepin Fetchit become a slur akin to Uncle Tom. By the time he died in 1985, many of his films had been quietly removed from general circulation or edited to cut him out. Only the insult of his name remained.

Despite the strong criticisms he received during the civil rights era over his playing to the worst stereotypes of blacks, in later years he was praised for his part in opening doors for black actors, notably receiving the Special Image Award by the NAACP. He was elected to the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978.

Given the contemporary success of black performers and innumerable hip-hop artists who flirt with shameless, disreputable images, Stepin Fetchit's transformation from popular figure to pariah serves as a cautionary tale. 


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