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Fetchit, Stepinlocked

(30 May 1892 or 1902–19 November 1985)
  • Bernard L. Peterson

Fetchit, Stepin (30 May 1892 or 1902–19 November 1985), actor, was born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry in Key West, Florida, the son of a cigar-maker. Little is known of his family or upbringing. He frequented racetracks as a boy, began working at age fourteen in carnivals and medicine shows as “Rastus, the Buck Dancer,” and was jailed for larceny as a young man. Before going into movies, he danced in vaudeville as half of a team called “Step ’n’ Fetchit, the Two Dancing Fools from Dixie,” taking the name from a horse that Perry had bet and won on. After the act split up, Perry kept the name for his solo vaudeville act.

Fetchit’s movie career was launched when he won the role of a stableboy in MGM’s In Old Kentucky (1927), soon followed by other bit parts, including a river pilot in the first film version of Show Boat (1929). However, it was in Fox Film Corporation’s Hearts in Dixie (1929) that Fetchit established his movie reputation in the role of Gummy, a shiftless plantation lackey with a slack-jawed expression, bald head, lanky body, and slow-motion style of moving and speaking. This was the first of a long line of lazy, shuffling, whining, dimwitted black menials that Fetchit was to portray for Fox in more than forty films.

When black reporter Ruby Berkley Goodwin interviewed Fetchit for a 1929 Pittsburgh Courier article, she was surprised that Fetchit was “an energetic man with a collegiate look and a nervous quality that showed itself in his gesticulating and restless movements.” In later years he was accused of perpetuating a negative racial stereotype, but he replied, “I was just playing a character, and that character did a lot of good” (Los Angeles Times, 20 Nov. 1985, p. 3). “If I hadn’t broken that [door],” he said in a later interview, “all the things that Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier have done wouldn’t be possible. I set up thrones for them to come and sit on” (New York Times, 20 Nov. 1985, p. D31).

Among Fetchit’s best-remembered feature films were those he made with Will Rogers, including David Harum and Judge Priest (both 1934). In David Harum Fetchit played a stable groom who is sold several times, along with a worn-out horse, in a classic comedy horse-trading scam. In Judge Priest he played a prisoner brought before the judge (Rogers) for chicken-stealing; afterwards, in the judge’s personal custody, he is the constant target of his insults and physical abuse, but they develop a rather poignant friendship.

Fetchit made movies with Shirley Temple (The Littlest Rebel, 1935; Dimples, 1936), Spencer Tracy (Marie Galante, 1934), Don Ameche and Ann Sothern (Fifty Roads to Town, 1937). He also appeared in Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), but his portrayal of Charlie’s black servant as stupid and inarticulate was unsuitable, and he was replaced in following films.

By the early 1940s Fetchit had earned and squandered more than $2 million. He tried to offset his degrading screen image by living the flamboyant lifestyle of a movie star; he owned twelve cars (one a pink Rolls-Royce) driven by chauffeurs, fifty suits, and six homes staffed with Chinese servants. His lavish parties, public brawls, and involvement in a paternity suit were highly publicized. He was married and divorced three times and had two sons, one of whom committed suicide after allegedly killing three people in Pennsylvania in 1969.

By 1947 Fetchit had been dropped by Fox and declared bankruptcy. For the next few years he worked in nightclubs and made a few all-black films, including Miracle in Harlem (1947). In 1951, after a period of remorse and repentance, he was able to get a few movie roles, but by this time his stereotypical portrayals were no longer acceptable, and his film career could not be resuscitated.

In the late 1960s Fetchit became a part of boxer Muhammad Ali’s entourage and embraced the Black Muslim faith. In 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement, he was one of the subjects of a Columbia (CBS) Broadcasting System television documentary, “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed,” in which he was accused of creating and perpetuating unfavorable images of black people. In 1970 he sued CBS for defamation of character, asking damages of $3 million, but a federal judge dismissed the case in 1974 on the grounds that Fetchit was a public figure, and that only his role had been criticized, not the actor personally.

From 1977 to his final illness Fetchit resided at the Motion Picture and Television Country House in Los Angeles. He died of complications from pneumonia and congestive heart failure in the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles. His age at death was officially reported as eighty-three, although he had sometimes claimed to be ten years younger.

Fetchit’s films are seldom shown today, and when they are, his scenes are usually cut to avoid offending African Americans; nonetheless, he should not be denied a place in film history. He received a special Image Award from the Hollywood Chapter of the NAACP in 1976 and was elected to the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978, for his pioneering contributions. He was the first black man to be featured in a succession of films by a major studio. When he broke down the doors that had been closed to black performers, he made it possible for thousands of others to pass through.

Bibliography

Fetchit’s films, in addition to those mentioned in the text, include The Devil’s Skipper (1928), Nameless Man (1928), The Tragedy of Youth (1928), Big Time (1929), Fox Movietone Follies of 1929, Hearts in Dixie (1929), Salute (1929), The Kid’s Clever (1929), Thru Different Eyes (1929), The Galloping Ghost (1929), The Ghost Talks (1929), Swing High (1930), Cameo Kirby (1930), The Big Fight (1930), The Prodigal (1931), Neck and Neck (1931), Slow Poke (1932), Wild Horse Mesa (1933), Stand Up and Cheer (1934), Carolina (1934), Bachelor of Arts (1934), The Country Chairman (1934), Steamboat ’Round the Bend (1935), 36 Hours to Kill (1935), One More Spring (1935), On the Avenue (1937), Love Is News (1937), Elephants Never Forget (1939), Zenobia (1939), His Exciting Night (1939), It’s Spring Again (1939), Big Time (1945), Bend of the River (1952), The Sun Shines Bright (1953), Sudden Fear (1954), Malcolm X (1972), Amazing Grace (1974), and Won-Ton-Ton The Wonder Dog That Saved Hollywood (1976). For commentary on his films see Donald Bogle, Toms, Conns, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (1973) and Blacks in American Films and Television: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (1988); Daniel J. Leab, From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures (1975); Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film (1977). Joe Boskin, Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester (1986), discusses Fetchit as an exemplar of the “Sambo” image; Otto Lindenmayer, Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed (1968), is based on the CBS documentary. See also “$3 Million ‘Fetchit’ Suit Goes to Trial Sept. 18,” Jet, 24 Aug. 1972, p. 54; Ruby Berkley Goodwin, “When Stepin Fetchit Stepped into Fame,” Pittsburgh Courier, 6 July 1929, an early interview; and “Stepin Fetchit Comes Back,” Ebony, Feb. 1952, p. 64.