Imagine you’re a busy working actor known for your professionalism, comic ability and dedication. Now imagine that you are asked over and over to play the same type of role in every film: a lazy, cowardly simpleton. I suppose you could say: “who cares? I’ll cry all the way to the bank!” …well perhaps…but what if after 25 years of film work you were suddenly ostracized and viewed as a sell-out and an embarrassment to your people?
That is the story of black actor Willie Best – who at the start of his career was promoted by racist studio heads as “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” (the successor to “Stepin Fetchit”). Best was a gifted performer who wanted to act in motion pictures, but in his era of Hollywood he was damned if he did - and damned if he didn’t.
Back in 1930, when Hollywood was just starting its sound film era, and every face on screen was white – there were a few black film actors who became bonafide celebrities. However, they were asked to play slaves or servants – or the role of subservient buffoon.
As singer Etta James once told a biographer, “They may have played fools on the screen, but the folks in the neighborhood knew it took more than a fool to break into lily-white Hollywood.”
Willie Best was discovered in a stage show and began his film career in 1930. He worked non-stop for 20 years in 118 films, then appeared in several Hal Roach produced TV shows, namely My Little Margie starring Gale Storm.
As times changed, actors like Stepin Fetchit and Sleep‘n’ Eat with their “yassuh” dialogue and pop-eyed cowardice were vilified by a new generation of civil rights activists who wanted to distance themselves from their painful past. By the late 1950s, Willie Best was persona non grata in the black community and at image conscious studios – so he dropped out of sight.
Willie Best died from cancer at age 45 in February 1962 at the Motion Picture Home Hospital. He was buried by the Motion Picture Fund. Sadly, his grave was unmarked and remained that way for 47 years.
This month, Willie Best is remembered with a new grave marker paid for by film buffs of Celluloid Slammer and Dearly Departed Tours.
Gale Storm of My Little Margie shared this statement with us about her former co-star:
"I loved Willie Best with all my heart...and so did everyone who worked with him. Not only was he a joy to be with, but as an actor he was an ultimate professional, always knew his lines and a director's delight. I am so grateful to his fans for honoring him this way."
Willie Best is buried at Valhalla Cemetery, North Hollywood near other such pioneering black actors as: Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Mantan Moreland, and Sam McDaniel.