Who was Cleavon Little?
Cleavon Little was an American actor, best remembered for his role as a black sheriff in the Academy Award-nominated comedy movie ‘Blazing Saddles’. He was a trained actor who appeared regularly in films and television shows, mostly during the 1970s and 1980s. Thanks to his versatile and charismatic stage performances, he became the first black actor to win a ‘Tony Award’. In his lifetime, he appeared in more than two dozen plays. He was a scholarship student at the ‘American Academy of Dramatic Arts’ where he was first noticed in 1966 for his performance in a production of ‘Macbeth’. Initially, Cleavon’s screen career looked very promising and critics were expecting him to become a leading film actor, but his movie career did not quite live up to its full potential. His last major acting assignment was the television series ‘True Colors’, in which he starred as Ron Freeman for 11 episodes. His other notable performance was in the TV show ‘Baghdad Cafe’. He was last seen on TV screens in 1992, appearing in an episode of ‘Tales from the Crypt’. A year later, he died of colon cancer at the age of 53.
Childhood & Early Life
Cleavon Little was born on June 1, 1939, in Chickasha, Oklahoma, United States. He was the brother of singer DeEtta Little who is best remembered for her performance in ‘Gonna Fly Now’, the theme song of the film ‘Rocky’. His other siblings are Rosemarie, Everett and Roy.
Cleavon was raised in California where he attended ‘Kearny High School’, graduating from there in 1957. Thereafter, he attended the ‘San Diego College’ and the ‘San Diego State University’. He graduated in 1965 with a bachelor's degree in dramatic arts.
He moved to New York after receiving a full scholarship to the prestigious ‘Julliard School’ in Manhattan. After completing his studies at Julliard, he trained at the ‘American Academy of Dramatic Arts’ between 1965 and 1967.
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Cleavon Little made his debut as a professional stage actor in February 1967 in the satire play ‘Macbird!’ It was followed by the off-Boradway production of ‘Scuba Duba’ in October 1967, in which he played the title role.
Following his success on stage, he started to attract the attention of Hollywood’s casting agents, soon appearing in television shows and films like ‘The Felony Squad’ (TV show, 1968), ‘What's So Bad About Feeling Good’ (Movie, 1968), ‘John and Mary’ (Movie, 1969) and ‘Cotton Comes to Harlem’ (Movie, 1970).
He made his Broadway debut in the 1969 play ‘Jimmy Shine’. His biggest break came in 1970 when he starred in the musical ‘Purlie’, for which he bagged a ‘Tony Award’ and a ‘Drama Desk Award’.
The busiest year of Cleavon's career was 1971, a period during which he starred in ‘Vanishing Point’ (Movie), ‘The Waltons’ (TV show), ‘All in the Family’ (TV show) and ‘The David Frost Revue’ (TV show).
His successful performances led to his appearance on the crime drama series ‘Mod Squad’ and a recurring role on the show ‘Temperatures Rising’ (1972-1974).
The highlight of his career was his role as Sheriff Bart in the 1974 movie ‘Blazing Saddles’, which received three Oscar nominations. Cleavon also got a ‘British Academy Award’ nomination for ‘Most Promising New Comer’.
He appeared in several television shows during the late 1970s and early 1980s, including ‘Police Story’ (1975), ‘The Rockford Files (1977), ‘The Love Boat’ (1980) and ‘The Fall Guy’ (1983).
Cleavon starred with his friend Judd Hirsh in the production of ‘I'm Not Rappaport’ in 1985. The role of Midge revived his acting career, and he also won three Tony awards for his excellent performance.
His other major roles in the 1990s were in the television shows ‘Baghdad Cafe’ (1990-1991) and ‘True Colors’ (1991-1992). His final appearance was in the series ‘Tales From the Crypt’ (1992).
Cleavon Little's humorous role as the mild-mannered Sheriff Bart, a black sheriff in a white town, in ‘Blazing Saddles’ (1974) is considered to be his finest performance.
He performed in the Broadway play ‘I'm Not Rappaport’ with his friend Judd Hirsch in 1985. His successful portrayal of Midge Carter not only injected a new lease of life in his acting career but also earned him three ‘Tony Awards’.
Family & Personal Life
Cleavon Little married Valerie Wiggins, a British subject, in 1972 and had a daughter named Adia Millett Little with her. After staying together for a brief period, they divorced in 1974.
He suffered from ulcers and digestive problems for most of his adult years. He died of colon cancer on October 22, 1992, at Sherman Oaks, California and his ashes were scattered at sea in New York Harbour.
Cleavon is survived by his daughter Adia, who lives in Los Angeles. His father Malachi Little and stepmother Ruby Little live in San Diego, while his brothers and sisters stay in Los Angeles.