Who was Stepin Fetchit?
Stepin Fetchit was an American film actor who became the very first African-American film actor to earn a million dollars in Hollywood. He made his name in an era when the black people were dominated by the whites in the industry. He was also the first ever black actor to receive featured screen credit in a film, which reflects the harsh reality of the industry that time. He was initially signed by the Fox Pictures, then dropped by them, and then re-signed. He acted in over 40 films between 1927 and 1939, a time when contracts for black actors were unheard of. He was famous for his humor and his unique style of acting; often special plots used to be written to make his character more prominent in the films. He always exploited the whites' sense of superiority by pretending to be slow-witted and lazy, like a ‘trickster’. Despite all the success he earned as an actor, over a period of time he became frustrated with the inequality within the industry and was also unhappy with not being paid as well as his white counterparts. Due to his frustration, he almost stopped working in the 1940s, making only sporadic film appearances in order to earn his livelihood.
Childhood & Early Life
Stepin Fetchit was born as Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry on May 30, 1902 in Key West, Florida to Joseph Perry, a cigar maker from Jamaica, and Dora Monroe, a seamstress from Nassau. Both of his parents were immigrants from the West Indies who had moved to the United States in the 1890s.
Some sources state that he was adopted at the age of eleven when the family moved to Tampa, Florida.
Perry's mother wanted him to be a dentist; as a result, he was adopted by a ‘quack’ dentist who promised to train him. However, he was made to polish boots for his new guardian and at the age of twelve, he ran away from there to revive his life, working in a carnival as an entertainer.
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Perry started his career as a comic character actor and by the time he turned twenty, he had become the manager of a traveling carnival show. He used the stage name ‘step and fetch it’ on a show after he won money betting on a racehorse named ‘Step and Fetch It’. This is how he adopted his stage name, Stepin Fetchit.
As an actor he often portrayed illiterate, dim-witted, and lazy characters on the stage and in films. However, in real life he was well-read and made a small career writing for the ‘The Chicago Defender’ alongside being an actor.
In 1927, he made a big impact in the industry with his powerful performance in the movie ‘In Old Kentucky’ alongside actress Carolynne Snowden. Their romantic connection in the movie was a rarity at that time (an African-American actor working with a white cast), and as a result, it earned Stepin a lot of positive feedback from the critics and he signed a five-year studio contract.
His rise in the industry that was prominently led by white actors was initially seen as a positive turn for black actors. In 1929, he appeared in a movie titled ‘Hearts in Dixie’ which was the first studio production to boast of a predominantly black cast. In the same year, he appeared in many other movies including ‘Kid's Clever’, ‘The Ghost Talk’, ‘Show Boat’, ‘Innocents of Paris’, and ‘Big Time’.
Stepin shared a good relationship with his colleague and comic actor Will Rogers, with whom he appeared in movies like ‘Judge Priest’, ‘David Harum’, ‘Steamboat 'Round the Bend’, and ‘The County Chairman’ between 1934 and 1935.
He became the very first black actor to become a millionaire which was a result of him appearing in over forty films between 1927 and 1939. But the racial discrimination and lower rate of payment to the black actors in the industry made him much frustrated and he sort of stopped working after 1940.
Even after he semi-retired from working, he continued living a lavish lifestyle and his irresponsible spending forced him to return to work within five years. From 1945 to 1953, Stepin appeared in eight additional movies including ‘Open the Door Richard’, ‘Swingtime Jamboree’, ‘Miracle in Harlem’, ‘Bend of the River’, and ‘The Sun Shines Bright’. Later, he only appeared in cameo roles including in a biopic based on his then friend ‘the heavyweight boxing champion’ Muhammad Ali.
The Stepin Fetchit starrer ‘Hearts in Dixie’ (1929) was a landmark in Hollywood as it was one of the first big-studio productions to boast of a predominantly African-American cast. The film celebrated African-American music and dance, and featured characters with dignity.
Stepin Fetchit was accused of playing stereotypical roles in movies and portraying black actors as victims in the industry. He got involved in a conflict with the civil rights leaders for showing the black community in the industry in a certain way which according to many was not the case.
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In 1968, a documentary was aired by CBS titled ‘Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed’ which earned its writer Andy Rooney an Emmy Award. This documentary was narrated by Bill Cosby and criticized the way blacks were depicted in the American films over the years. Stepin was specially mentioned and criticized for his part which prompted him to sue the producers for defamation of character. However, he failed in his bid to recover his image as he lost the lawsuit.
Awards & Achievements
Stepin Fetchit has a star on the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ in the category ‘Motion Pictures.’
The Hollywood chapter of the NAACP awarded him a Special NAACP Image Award in 1976.
In 1978 he was inducted into the ‘Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame’.
Stepin Fetchit was married three times in his life. His first wife Dorothy Stevenson, whom he was married in 1929, gave birth to their son, Jemajo, the following year. The marriage ended in 1931.
He married his second wife Winifred Johnson in 1937 and a year later he had his second son Donald. The pair split up soon after and he married his third wife Bernice Sims in 1951.
His second son Donald died under mysterious circumstances in 1969. It was reported that he went on a shooting spree, injuring sixteen and killing four, including his wife, with an M1 Carbine and a .30 caliber Marlin carbine in Pennsylvania Turnpike, before killing himself at the end. However, Stepin believed that his son was set-up as he was becoming a strong name in the ‘black power movement’. But his death was ruled as murder-suicide as no evidence was found to satisfy the theories claimed by the family.
Stepin Fetchit lived a lavish life with all the money he had earned as an actor. At the height of his glory, he owned a collection of 12 automobiles as well as kept sixteen Chinese servants. His flamboyant lifestyle included lavish parties as well. As a result of mindlessly squandering away his wealth, he became bankrupt in 1947.
He died of pneumonia and heart failure at the age of 83, on November 19, 1985. His was buried at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles.
This actor had adopted his professional name Stepin Fetchit from a thoroughbred racehorse.
He suffered a major stroke in 1976 which eventually ended his acting career.
He was good friends with the heavyweight champion and legend Muhammad Ali.
He was the first ever black actor to become a millionaire and also the first ever black actor to earn a studio contract.
This actor was inducted into Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978.