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There are words quite common a century ago that trigger anger and embarrassment today, words like `Sambo' and `coon,' which are reviled these days as racial slurs. You can put the name of one performer in the same category, Stepin Fetchit. Lincoln Perry adopted that stage name during his years on the black minstrel circuit and became famous as the lazy, shiftless character in early Hollywood movies. Because he portrayed a stereotype, some denounced him as Hollywood's Uncle Tom, but because he played it so well, he also won praise for brilliant comic timing and for the sly spark of intelligence inside his shuffling, sleepy-eyed character.
If you have questions about the life of Lincoln Perry or Stepin Fetchit, our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mel Watkins joins us now from our bureau in New York to talk about his new biography, "Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry."
And it's good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. MEL WATKINS (Author, "Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry"): It's great being here.
CONAN: Stepin Fetchit can be safely called the first black star in Hollywood. Ordinarily, he would have been lionized, yet he is considered today by most people an embarrassment.
Mr. WATKINS: Yes. And it's a consequence of the times, basically, the consequence of the racial situation in this country at that time and the fact that perhaps most prominently that no other images were on the screen except derogatory comic images at that point.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Where did he develop his character?
Mr. WATKINS: The character comes--really, it's based in folklore, in black folklore, and it's something called putting on massa, which the slaves developed this way of dealing with unwanted work and unpaid work and so forth. It was a way of getting out of the tedious work that they were required to do. And also of, in a way, putting on whites in general in order to get what you wanted, that is it became sort of a hustle, a ploy, that blacks used. In the late, I guess, 19th century it began to be used as a comic device by many comedians. It was very popular in black cabarets on the Theater Owners' Booking Association tour and all across the nation comics were using it. Burt Williams, in fact, was famous for it, and Burt Williams, less reviled than Stepin Fetchit, but the character that he did was much the same.
CONAN: The name Stepin Fetchit came from a double act that Lincoln Perry used to perform.
Mr. WATKINS: Yes. He had performed as a team, as most black comics did at that time, and it was called `Step and Fetchit.' When he broke up with his partner and decided to go solo, he once mused that he didn't know whether he was Step or Fetchit, so he decided to take both names.
CONAN: And Lincoln Perry himself from an interesting background. As you point out, his mother fostered the church in him, his father fostered the love of stage and travel and maybe not so well religious observances.
Mr. WATKINS: Absolutely. His father was sort of a traveling man and an amateur vaudevillian who was away from home a lot of times, and he would take his son, Lincoln, with him at times. And I think that's where Lincoln Perry developed his love of the stage. And he displayed a lot of talent at an early age. He was outgoing, extroverted type who loved to play jokes on people and was quite outspoken, actually.
CONAN: How did he get to Hollywood?
Mr. WATKINS: He traveled--well, he was on the Black Theatrical tour, which traveled all over the country, basically in Southern states. And he left Chicago in and around 1926. At that point, he was a writer for the Chicago Defender, which most people don't know because it has been alleged by some that he couldn't read, which is obviously not true. He wrote for the Chicago Defender and wrote columns as he traveled throughout the Midwest and on to the West, and he arrived in Hollywood in 1926. At that point, no blacks basically were in movies. Only two appeared in movies. That was James Lowery and Charles Gilpin(ph) and a few others--Noble Johnson and one of the "Our Gang" kids.
Mr. WATKINS: When he arrived there, whites mostly played the roles of blacks in blackface in movies. But they decided to make a movie called "In Old Kentucky," which had been three times before with all-white actors. And he went and tried out for it and sort of impressed everyone there because he went in character. He went in as if he were befuddled, didn't know where he was, didn't even know he was trying out for a part, and the director and producers immediately took to him and assigned him the role.
CONAN: So he was putting on massa again?
Mr. WATKINS: Again. His whole life--in fact, I compare him to a hustler throughout this book because he--a trickster, rather. His whole life was based on that. He understood the racial situation. He was a very intelligent man. He understood the racial situation and he played it. He played it as best he could because he was also very ambitious and he knew that the only way at that time that he could become a star, which he wanted to be, was to play along with those roles.
CONAN: And he did play along.
Mr. WATKINS: Yes, he did. So much so that at one point by the 1930s, Stepin Fetchit and Amos n' Andy were the most popular and well-known black characters in the United States.
Mr. WATKINS: Of course, Amos n' Andy at that point were being played by two whites on radio, but they still were popular characters. Stepin Fetchit was himself and he was undoubtedly one of the--well, undoubtedly one of the top five performers in this country. There were others--Bojangles Robinson for the stage and people like Duke Ellington, who was just breaking in in music and so forth.
CONAN: But a person who enjoyed this fame and the wealth that came with it and lived rather flamboyantly.
Mr. WATKINS: He lived flamboyantly and ostentatiously. It was a time when
Hollywood actors had just come into their own, and most Hollywood actors at that point were living flamboyantly. They were living with gold-plated bathrooms and $20,000 cars and so forth. Stepin Fetchit did his best to emulate what was going in the Hollywood Hills with white actors. He thought that if he was a star that he should live like a star.
CONAN: You mentioned that he came to Hollywood in 1926, right at the end of the silent era. And, of course, the comic timing, the patter that he developed all those years in minstrel shows, made him a natural for talking movies.
Mr. WATKINS: Yes. And, in fact, in about 1928, there was a rumor that was spread in Hollywood that blacks were somehow better suited for talking movies. The voices were deeper or something and they sang and, therefore, they would be better in talking movies. And this rumor went around. And so Hollywood decided to make two spectacular black movies, one "Hallelujah," one called "Hearts in Dixie." Stepin Fetchit was chosen to star in "Hearts in Dixie," and that's the movie that really made his name. In fact, Robert Benchley later wrote about that, that he's the best actor that the talking pictures have produced.
CONAN: Well, we don't have a clip from that movie, but we do have one from a film called "Richard's Reply," in which Lincoln Perry plays that Stepin Fetchit role. He described himself sometimes as the world's laziest man.
Mr. WATKINS: Absolutely.
(Soundbite of "Richard's Reply")
Mr. LINCOLN PERRY: ...(Unintelligible) I can't get all my sleep. I rest well at night and sleep good in the daytime, but in the afternoon when I really need to relax, I just seem to toss and turn. I don't know.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Richard, can't get him up. How can I get him up? Bring that chick here to the phone. He's no clown, but she'll break him down.
(Soundbite of telephone ringing)
Mr. PERRY: Hey!
CONAN: Stepin Fetchit in a clip from the movie "Richard's Reply."
And, Mel Watkins, one of the interesting things about your book is to learn that this guy was a major player in early Hollywood, most of his scenes have been cut out of the movies that still survive.
Mr. WATKINS: Yes. It's very difficult to find movies intact with him. I had to go to archival institutions to see many of the movies. A few are available. The one that you just played, "Richard's Reply," is available on tape or, I guess, DVD.
Mr. WATKINS: And that happens to be one of the best examples of his humor because he is not in a film, he's not playing the role of Stepin Fetchit, he's simply doing more or less his stage act, in which he was much more articulate.
You mentioned earlier that he had come from silent films. And what he did in most of the movies that are available is something he called audible pantomime. And he did it for two reasons. First of all, he felt that it was funnier and that, therefore, he could take advantage of his very great ability to do pantomime. And secondly, he was unsatisfied with the lines written for him by the people who wrote the scripts and refused on many occasions to deliver those lines. So what we wold do is eliminate most of it and simply fudge them in one way or another or just eliminate them altogether. And that's why it's so difficult to hear what he's saying in many movies. And one critic compared him to--or said that he was as inscrutable as James Joyce, for instance.
CONAN: As inscrutable as James Joyce?
Mr. WATKINS: Yes.
CONAN: I--we'll let that go for a minute.
Mr. WATKINS: Yeah.
CONAN: But I did want to ask you--James Joyce pretty inscrutable. But I did want to ask you, as a black man, to go in and watch this performance, how did you feel about it?
Mr. WATKINS: I must admit that there are some scenes in which you actually cringe, and then I started to realize why. It's because the movies are set up at a time in American history that the racial situation demanded a certain kind of observance of popular mores. And, therefore, even in movies with Will Rogers, an actor with whom Lincoln Perry got along with very well, they really made what were the buddy movies of that time. But unlike the buddy movies of today, where you have actors like Martin Lawrence or Eddie Murphy acting with white actors and assuming an equal role, there was the inherent inequality that came from the societal or racial arrangements of the times. So it's an actual reflection of what was going on.
So if you can look past the sometimes painful maneuverings and actions of Stepin Fetchit, you also see something about America. And, you know, what you have to realize is it wasn't made up; this is what America was like. And here's a man who even given that situation was able to rise to stardom in Hollywood, and I think that's fairly phenomenal.
CONAN: We're talking with Mel Watkins about his new book, "Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry."
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get a caller involved in the conversation. (800) 989-8255, if you'd like to join us. And this is Mark, Mark calling us from Redding, California.
MARK (Caller): Yes. I once watched a movie on TV with Stepin Fetchit opposite Will Rogers. And in the course of the movie, Will Rogers asked him if he could play "Dixie," and he said, `Yes, sir, and I can play "Marching Through Georgia," too.'
Mr. WATKINS: Yes, that's in "Judge Priest."
MARK: Will Rogers said, `Don't do that. I've already saved you from one lynch mob today. I don't want to try for a second.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WATKINS: Yes, that's from "Judge Priest," and that's a scene that--that's one of the things that Will Rogers and Lincoln Perry inserted into those films. They--going against the grain of the times, those lines upset a lot of people in the South and--even though the film in general bows to or observes all of the racial arrangements that the South expected.
MARK: I thought it was a wonderful line, myself. Yeah.
Mr. WATKINS: It is. It's a very funny line. I just saw that movie recently and it's a delightful film. Unfortunately, it's not available in many places. The Museum of Modern Art has it, and I think the Museum of Television and Radio also has it available.
CONAN: Mark, thanks very much.
MARK: Sure thing.
CONAN: And let's try Jim. And Jim is with us from Norman, Oklahoma.
JIM (Caller): Hello. How you doing?
CONAN: All right.
JIM: Yes, my question is, is there any truth to something I heard years and years ago that Stepin Fetchit was alleged to have taught Muhammad Ali the rope-a-dope punch that he used to knock out--I think it was Sonny Liston, but I'm not certain. But there was a glancing blow that didn't look like it could have knocked anybody out, and the other fighter went down like a sack of bricks. And later, Muhammad Ali claimed that he was taught that punch by Lincoln Perry. Is that true?
CONAN: The punch was, indeed, Sonny Liston. Rope-a-dope was much later in his career--George Foreman. But anyway, Mel Watkins, go ahead.
Mr. WATKINS: Yes. Well, both Muhammad Ali and Lincoln Perry attest to that, and it's possible since Lincoln Perry was a good friend of Jack Johnson's. In fact, they used to hank out on Central Avenue together and--which also flies in the face of the report that Stepin Fetchit was an Uncle Tom. Lincoln--or Jack Johnson, in fact, was one of the most controversial figures of his time and exactly the opposite of an Uncle Tom, as was Muhammad Ali, and they were both friends of Stepin Fetchit. But Stepin Fetchit did say that he taught Muhammad Ali that punch; Muhammad Ali agreed. I'm skeptical, personally.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JIM: I just wonder what the physics of such a lesson would have been.
CONAN: Yeah. Well...
Mr. WATKINS: Well, he said that that was a punch that Jack Johnson had used often and that it was a matter of balance and faking someone into moving in a certain direction and then using their own inertia or...
Mr. WATKINS: ...using their own force along with the punch.
JIM: I suppose those were skills that Lincoln Perry probably possessed, as well, given his craft. So I guess it's not absolutely impossible.
Mr. WATKINS: Well, he professed a lot of things, that's for sure. He was a very ambitious man and it is very difficult to tell when he was telling the truth. So everything had to be checked.
JIM: Thank you.
CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: And that--we don't think of Stepin Fetchit and Lincoln Perry being in a room with Muhammad Ali much later. He lived a long time after his celebrity waned. And you paint a picture of a man, a much older man, who I guess was having some difficulty realizing just how out of time he was.
Mr. WATKINS: Yes, he was. And what surfaced at this point was when he began being attacked by leaders in the civil rights movement, given his rather surly personality and his aggressiveness, he simply attacked back and he attacked civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, and various other people who had criticized him and alleged that they didn't know what they were talking about, that if they had understood the times that they would have seen that what he did was actually progressive. And in many ways, he was right.
But it's the politics of race colliding head-on with entertainment and the evolution of entertainment to a certain extent. And there was really nothing to do about it. The politicians, I felt, had to do what they did because the images on the screen needed to be corrected and certain people had to be sacrificed. Unfortunately, Stepin Fetchit was one of them.
CONAN: Seventy-five years after he made his movies, are we--is it time now to re-evaluate Stepin Fetchit and maybe to look at him differently?
Mr. WATKINS: That's why I wrote the book. I think it is. I think we've moved to a point now where those old wounds have healed to a certain extent and I think we can look back at history. We do not need to look at it from the extreme viewpoint of a political situation where it was necessary to criticize those actors who did that. In doing so, it's almost as if we're criticizing slaves for picking cotton. I think people work in certain situations, they work within a certain context and they have to deal with that context. So we can look at it now, I think. We can look back and see what a marvelous comic this man was, what a marvelous actor he was. He was so good, in fact, that many of the leading actors of the time refused or didn't want to be on screen with him because they said he stole every scene he was in. Even Marlon Brando would later say that he studied some of Stepin Fetchit's old movies to pick up on certain acting techniques.
CONAN: Mel Watkins, thanks very much.
Mr. WATKINS: You're welcome.
CONAN: Mel Watkins' new book is "Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry." He joined us from our bureau in New York.
Be sure to be with us tomorrow. Sweet Honey in the Rock will be here.
I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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