Retrobituaries: Lincoln Perry, the First African American Movie Star

Getty Images
Getty Images

Before the likes of Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington, successful African American actors were hard to find in Hollywood. Lincoln Perry (1902-1985) is often credited as the world’s first African American movie star. Using the stage name Stepin Fetchit, he is also said to be the first Black actor to become a millionaire.

Born in Key West, Florida, Perry had a Jamaican father and Bahamian mother. His father, Joseph Perry, was a cigar wrapper and cook who sometimes sang and danced in minstrel shows. His mother, a devout Catholic, worked as a seamstress for a dentist’s family. As a young teenager, Perry sang and tap danced as a tent-show performer, traveling around the US with carnivals and medicine shows. In his twenties, Perry performed in Black vaudeville shows as one-half of a duo called “Step and Fetch It” (although he also claimed to have taken the name "Stepin Fetchit” from a racehorse). After he came to Los Angeles in the 1920s, a talent scout for Fox Studios offered him a screen test, which proved successful.

During his career, Perry appeared in more than 40 movies, such as 1929’s Hearts In Dixie, 1930’s A Tough Winter, and 1934’s Judge Priest. In one of his early roles, 1927’s silent film In Old Kentucky, Perry won audiences over by providing comic relief. He got a contract with Fox to appear in the studio’s films as a featured player. Credited as Stepin Fetchit, Perry pretended to be “The Laziest Man On Earth” (or sometimes “The Laziest Man In The World”) to make audiences laugh, and he played a similar character in multiple films.

Perry’s peak of fame and fortune was in the 1930s, when he became a millionaire. Newspapers, magazines, and tabloids featured articles on Perry and his extravagant lifestyle. He reportedly owned a dozen cars (including a pink Cadillac with his name in neon lights), wore expensive cashmere suits, and had 16 servants and chauffeurs. He also attended Hollywood parties with celebrities such as Will Rogers, John Wayne, Mae West, Shirley Temple and, later, Muhammad Ali.

Beginning in the 1930s, though, Americans (Black and White) and civil rights leaders harshly condemned Perry’s portrayals. Because he frequently played lazy, illiterate characters—often an aloof, slow, confused man with drooping eyes and rambling, incoherent speech—Perry was called out for promoting racist stereotypes. Criticized as a buffoon, an embarrassment, and a degrading caricature, Perry’s characters were seen as perpetuating the contemporary racist ideas of Black people as lazy, dumb, and unsophisticated.

At the time, the NAACP was working to get film studios to give equal pay and billing to Black and White actors, and to stop portraying Black people negatively. Perry tried to get equal pay and billing from Fox, but failed, and quit Hollywood by 1940. In 1947, he was bankrupt. His acting work was sporadic in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He died in 1985 in Los Angeles, at a hospital for members of the motion picture and television industry. 

Although many members of the Black community have viewed Perry’s contributions to cinema negatively, some of them take a more nuanced view. Jimmie Walker, a black comedian, said that he doesn’t think Stephin Fetchit is all bad. According to Walker, Perry created a funny character that actually functions as a subversive trickster. In films, Perry’s character would often outsmart White characters by pretending to be incompetent so that the White people would get impatient and end up doing the work themselves. Black film critic Mel Watkins has said that African Americans understood that Perry’s character had its origins in slaves resisting work, and found the humor in it.  

Because Perry was billed as Stepin Fetchit rather than as Lincoln Perry, audiences had a difficult time separating the actor from his character. In a 1968 interview, Fetchit said, “Just because Charlie Chaplin played a tramp doesn't make tramps out of all Englishmen, and because Dean Martin drinks, that doesn't make drunks out of all Italians … I was only playing a character, and that character did a lot of good.” Far from being lazy or stupid himself, Perry wrote regular columns for The Chicago Defender newspaper to share his experience in Hollywood.

In 1976, Perry got a Special NAACP Image Award for his accomplishments, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame under the name Stepin Fetchit. Despite disagreements about Perry’s legacy, many agree that he opened a door for Black actors in Hollywood.

Madelyn Pugh Davis, the “Girl Writer” Behind I Love Lucy

It was February 11, 1954, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were waiting nervously at the Emmy Awards. Their costar on I Love Lucy, Vivian Vance, had already won a Best Series Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of landlady Ethel Mertz. And now, Ball and Arnaz stood on stage at the Hollywood Palladium to accept the Emmy for Best Situation Comedy for I Love Lucy.

“It wouldn’t be right to call our writers up here, and give [the Emmy] to them, would it?” Ball asked the audience. “But I wish we could.” Arnaz also gave a nod to the importance of the show’s writers: “I just want to say this—and I really mean this—I hope that next year, the Academy does not forget the writers.”

Without I Love Lucy’s three main writers—Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh Davis—television would be missing some of its most famously funny scenes. Davis, the only female writer on I Love Lucy, wrote for all the episodes of the six-season show. She often tested the slapstick herself, becoming key to the visual gags that made the series so memorable, from a chocolate factory assembly line cranked to an impossible speed to a giant loaf of bread overflowing from an oven.

Born on March 15, 1921, Davis (originally Madelyn Pugh) grew up in Indianapolis, where her father worked at a bank's real estate department. She wanted to be a writer from the time she was a child, and crafted her first play—performed in her living room—at the age of 10. Later, she co-edited her high school newspaper alongside fellow student Kurt Vonnegut [PDF].

In 1942, she graduated from Indiana University with a journalism degree, determined to become a foreign correspondent. "Somebody pointed out that there were very few women foreign correspondents, but there were very few women anything, so it didn’t bother me," Davis wrote in her 2005 memoir Laughing With Lucy. After failing to find a job she wanted in journalism, she began working as a copywriter at an Indianapolis radio station. She was one of only a few women to work behind the scenes in radio back then—an opportunity she attributed to the relative dearth of men, who were off fighting in World War II.

The next year, she and her family moved to Los Angeles, where she found work as a staff writer at NBC Radio. She met Bob Carroll Jr. at her next staff writer gig, at CBS Radio about six months later, where she was often referred to as the "girl writer." She and Carroll became writing partners, working on comedy scripts for radio shows including The Couple Next Door and It’s a Great Life. While writing for My Favorite Husband on CBS, they got the chance to work with Ball, the star of that show. Davis would later describe Ball as fearless, someone willing to "do anything" for the sake of comedy.

It was after about two and a half years of writing for My Favorite Husband that Davis got her big break. As she tells it in Laughing With Lucy, the then-network vice president of programming for CBS West Coast, Harry Ackerman, and Ball's agent decided to give the red-headed star a try on the then-new medium of television. Ball insisted on a show featuring her real-life husband, Arnaz, but "the network didn't feel the audience would believe Lucy was married to a Cuban band leader. Lucy told them stubbornly that she was married to a Cuban band leader, and the audience would like it fine," Davis wrote.

To prove it, Ball hired Davis and Carroll to write a stage act that she and Arnaz would perform during his show on the road. Audiences roared with laughter, and the network ordered a television pilot based on the act. Ball requested that Davis, Carroll, and Jess Oppenheimer (the producer and head writer on My Favorite Husband) write I Love Lucy’s first episode. “And so we said 'I guess we better learn to write for television,'" Davis said in an interview with the Writers Guild Foundation.

Besides brainstorming funny ideas, pitching storylines, and writing dialogue, Davis also typed the scripts and acted out some of the show’s visual stunts, making sure that a woman of roughly Ball’s height and size would be able to perform them safely.

“We’d wrap Madelyn in rugs and strap her into swivel chairs and hang her out of windows, and she came through nicely,” Carroll recalled. “So I said, ‘If it works for Madelyn, it will work for Lucy.’” (Not all the gags worked, however; after one perilous trip on a unicycle resulted in Davis running into a wall and hitting her head, she "decided it was too dangerous for Lucy.")

In the scripts, Davis typed the step-by-step instructions for these physical gags in all caps, leading Ball to call them “the black stuff.” Rather than improvise these stunts, Ball relied on Davis’s detailed, highly choreographed writing to know how to move her body and when to make certain facial expressions—all for maximum comedy.

To come up with enough ideas to write hundreds of funny episodes, Davis drew on her own life for inspiration, writing jokes about her experiences picking which movie to watch or what entree to order at a restaurant. “All writers do that. You use your own experience and pretty soon, when you're doing a weekly show, you just use everything you can,” Davis told the Writers Guild Foundation.

After I Love Lucy ended, Davis continued working with Carroll, writing for other Ball productions such as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, Life With Lucy, and the 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours. During their 50-year working partnership, Davis and Carroll also wrote The Mothers-In-Law (which was executive produced by Desi Arnaz), produced the sitcom Alice, and co-wrote Laughing With Lucy. They were nominated for three Emmy Awards.

Davis, who married twice and had one son, died in Los Angeles in 2011 at 90 years old. Lucie Arnaz, Ball and Arnaz’s daughter, described her as a class act. “A very private person, very soft-spoken, genteel, feminine—all those lovely words you associate with great ladies. And yet she had the ability to write this wacky, insane comedy for my mother.”

Bernarr Macfadden: Bodybuilder, Publisher, and Eccentric Prophet of Physical Culture

The History Collection/Alamy Stock Photo
The History Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Bernarr Macfadden, who almost single-handedly launched the twin American obsessions with diet and exercise, wanted you to picture a roaring lion when you said his name out loud. Not content with his birth name, Bernard, the young Macfadden had his name legally changed so it supposedly better resembled a roar: Bernarr.

Macfadden certainly did roar his way through life. Born August 16, 1868 as Bernard McFadden on a farm in Mill Spring, Missouri, he was orphaned by the time he was 11. Macfadden’s father died from delirium tremens (alcohol withdrawal), and his mother from tuberculosis. The young boy was briefly installed in a Chicago boarding school, then housed, equally briefly, with relatives who ran a hotel in the city. He then worked as a farm laborer in northern Illinois for two years before he took to the open road, working as a miner, a dentist's assistant, a wood chopper, a printer’s apprentice, and a water boy for a construction team.

Because he spent his childhood dreading the arrival of the same tuberculosis symptoms that had killed his mother, Macfadden grew increasingly obsessed with physical fitness and healthy eating as wards against disease. By his late teenage years, he had set himself up in St. Louis, where he diligently practiced a well-honed exercise routine that included repeat sets with dumbbells and the horizontal bar, as well as daily six-mile walks carrying a 10-pound lead bar. He also decided on his purpose in life: spreading the gospel of exercise.

Around 1887, he rented a gym space in St. Louis, Missouri, and set a bold sign out front: "Bernarr Macfadden-Kinistherapist-Teacher of Higher Physical Culture." If you've never heard of a kinistherapist before, neither had Macfadden. The nonexistent profession just sounded good to him. And it sounded good to the people of St. Louis too. In a short while, business was booming.

But Macfadden had bigger dreams than St. Louis could fulfill. His drive to spread the gospel of physical culture soon led him to leave behind his St. Louis gym and head for New York City, where he rented a place in Manhattan and invited the press over for a “Physical Culture Matinee.” Surprisingly, the press actually showed up; their entertainment that afternoon consisted of Macfadden “chatting and posing in an interesting way,” according to one observer.

In 1899, at 30 years old, Macfadden launched Physical Culture magazine as a showcase for his ideas on bodybuilding, exercise, and diet. Those ideas boiled down to a simple formula: eat good foods, exercise often, and go on occasional fasts (his focus on fasting is seen as the precursor to today's popular ketogenic diet, by some accounts). However, his enthusiasm often overwhelmed his sensible ideas. He frequently campaigned against doctors and vaccinations, and generalized American “prudery.”

A portrait of Bernarr Macfadden
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite its quirky character, Physical Culture was a near-immediate hit. Macfadden’s tireless promotion and obvious zeal for his ideas were aided by convenient timing: Just as the magazine launched, Americans were turning for the first time en masse to improving their diet and exercise routines, encouraged by a similar craze in Britain as well as nationalistic fitness efforts like the gymnasiums favored by German-American immigrants. Macfadden was in the right place at the right time to be the prophet of the diet and exercise movement.

Like other self-styled prophets before him, however, Macfadden’s outsized personality became one of his greatest obstacles. He was given to fits of mooing and braying, which he believed aided in voice development. He wore his hair thick, wild, and long (at least by early 20th century standards) as proof of the efficacy of his cure for baldness (a “cure,” by the way, that involved vigorous pulling on the hair). He believed shoes were unnatural, so he frequently tramped about barefoot. He slept on the floor, with windows wide open even in winter. His hatred for the fashion industry led him to wear his clothes for years until they were literally hanging from his body in tatters. This last habit led to some unfortunate confrontations with the doormen at his New York apartment building, who frequently mistook him for a hobo.

Nevertheless, Physical Culture magazine made Macfadden wealthy and provided the seed money to launch twin empires in publishing and health. By the 1920s, he owned 10 highly successful magazines and was worth upward of $30 million. His publishing ideas were innovative and profitable, despite their often tawdry character. He launched the first true confession magazine, True Story, in 1919, as well as a number of other magazines in the same vein, such as True Romance and True Detective. He also launched the legendary New York Evening Graphic, one of the forerunners of modern tabloid newspapers. With article titles such as “I Taught My Wife to Drink,” “I Am the Mother of My Sister’s Son,” and “I Killed Him, What’ll I Do?,” the sordid stories of sin, guilt, and redemption in Macfadden's titles were hugely popular with the American masses.

The cover of "True Detective Mysteries," July 1926
Internet Archive // Public Domain

Macfadden simultaneously spread his Physical Culture empire into the health arena as well. He opened a chain of Physical Culture restaurants, with the gimmick of charging one cent for every item on the menu, following the idea that the best foods for you were also the cheapest. He also established four spas, dubbed “healthoriums,” in upstate New York, Long Island, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and Battle Creek, Michigan. At the Macfadden spas, participants could aim to achieve “an absolute purity of their blood through a regimen of exercise, fresh air, bland diet, and no medicines.” Macfadden’s empire-building reached its zenith at his spa in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which he vigorously—and unsuccessfully—campaigned to have incorporated into a new town dubbed “Physical Culture City.”

Macfadden’s outsized ego and overbearing convictions reportedly made him a difficult marital partner. His first two marriages quickly ended in divorce. His third marriage, arguably more successful, came about in a particularly Macfadden-ian way: Bernarr was in England, judging a contest he’d organized to find “the most perfectly formed female.” The winner was one Mary Williamson, a competitive swimmer, who was subsequently convinced to become Macfadden's third bride. He later would assert that her prize for winning the contest was … him.

Their marriage survived 34 years and produced seven children, named (by Bernarr, of course): Byrnece, Beulah, Beverly, Braunda, Byrne, Berwyn, and Bruce (although some sources call him Brewster). In 1946, Mary obtained a divorce, in drawn-out and very public proceedings.

Bernarr MacFadden and family members at the Capitol, where they were demonstrating how to keep fit to legislators.
Bernarr MacFadden and family members at the Capitol, where they were demonstrating how to keep fit to legislators.
Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Meanwhile, Macfadden’s fortunes began to diminish. The New York Evening Graphic, despite some early success, was quickly derided as one of America’s worst papers—thanks to sleazy headlines like “Weed Parties in Soldiers’ Love Nest.” The newspaper’s gradual collapse drained millions from Macfadden’s bank account. An ill-conceived run for the Republican nominee for president in 1936 also led to widespread public derision for “Body Love Macfadden.” A third blow was the failure of his chain of one-cent restaurants; the gimmick couldn’t withstand the reality of restaurant overhead.

Macfadden was married a fourth time, briefly, to a woman half his age, who shortly after had the marriage annulled. He sold off his remaining magazine interests in the 1940s and spent his last years, and the last of his fortune, on a variety of stunts and schemes. He ran for the U.S. Senate in Florida, offered a prize for the best biographical play about his life, and, when he turned 81, celebrated the accomplishment by parachuting out of an airplane. That feat became an annual event for Macfadden, who proudly defied his advancing years by parachuting into the Hudson River every birthday, and once, when he turned 84, into the Seine in Paris. He said he’d continue every year until he turned 120.

Sadly, he died a few years later, at age 87, in 1955. His cause of death, depending on the source, was either cerebral thrombosis (a blood clot in a cerebral vein in the brain) or an attack of jaundice following a three-day fast. By the time he died, Macfadden had about $50,000 left of his fortune and was generally regarded as an eccentric hovering on the edges of fame, always angling for a new way to see his name in the paper.

Macfadden’s ideas, however, outlived him, and some of them ended up having some merit. He was one of the first Americans to loudly proclaim the benefits of exercise and dieting. He railed against corsets and white bread, both of which have substantially declined in popularity. Today, you can find thousands of people jogging and lifting weights in cities across the country—highly unusual pursuits before Macfadden started spreading the doctrine of Physical Culture.

Additional Source: Great American Eccentrics

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