Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (May 30, 1902 – November 19, 1985), better known by the stage name Stepin Fetchit, was an American comedian and film actor, who had his greatest fame throughout the 1930s. In films and on stage, the persona of Stepin Fetchit was billed as “the Laziest Man in the World”.
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Shuffling To Ignominy: The Tragedy Of Stepin Fetchit 0th Edition
by Champ Clark (Author)
Stepin Fetchit…two words that have entered our language, signifying the ultimate in negative racial stereotype. Between 1927 and 1975, Stepin Fetchit, born Lincoln Perry in 1902, appeared in over 40 films. He was the first Black actor to receive featured credit in a motion picture. He was the first Black actor to sign a long-term contract with a Hollywood studio. He was the first Black actor to drive through the front gates of a Hollywood studio…with a chauffer at the wheel. He was, in Fetchit’s own words, “The first Black actor universally acclaimed a star by the public.” This at a time when, “No White man had the idea of making a Negro a star.” Stepin Fetchit was indeed the first African-American movie star.How, then, did Stepin Fetchit come to represent all that is bad about race in America? And who was the man behind this mask of a name?Here, author Champ Clark reveals the true facts of Fetchit/Perry’s controversial life and career. Going beyond archival material, Clark draws from his conversations with the actor’s own family, friends and co-stars. In addition, a newly discovered eight-hour interview allows the real Lincoln Perry to finally speak for himself.Shuffling to Ignominy: The Tragedy of Stepin Fetchit is a troubling tale that reflects D.E.B. DuBois’ assertion that, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”-Sidney Poitier says, “Stepin Fetchit paved the way.”-
“Forgotten Funny” Documentary – Stepin Fetchit
Perry parlayed the Fetchit persona into a successful film career and became a millionaire. He was the first black actor to do so. He was also the first black actor to receive featured screen credit in a film.
Perry’s film career slowed after 1939, and after 1953, nearly stopped altogether. Around that time, the actor and the character began to be seen by black Americans and Americans at large as an embarrassing and harmful anachronism, echoing and perpetuating negative stereotypes. The Stepin Fetchit character has undergone a re-evaluation by some scholars, who view him as an embodiment of the trickster archetype.
Stepin Fetchit: The Life & Times of Lincoln Perry Paperback – November 14, 2006 by Mel Watkins (Author)
In the late 1920s and ’30s Lincoln Perry, aka Stepin Fetchit, was both renowned and reviled for his surrealistic portrayals of the era’s most popular comic stereotype–the lazy, shiftless Negro. Perry was hailed by critic Robert Benchley as “the best actor that the talking movies have produced,” and Mel Watkins’s meticulously researched and sensitive biography reveals the paradoxes of this pioneering actor’s life, from Perry’s tremendous popularity to his money troubles and rowdy offscreen antics. As later generations come to recognize Perry’s prodigious talent and achievements, in Stepin Fetchit, Mel Watkins brilliantly and definitively illuminates the life and times of a legendary figure in American entertainment.
Little is certain about Perry’s background other than that he was born in Key West, Florida, to West Indian immigrants. He was the second child of Joseph Perry, a cigar maker from Jamaica (although some sources indicate the Bahamas) and Dora Monroe, a seamstress from Nassau. Both of his parents came to the United States in the 1890s, where they married. By 1910, the family had moved north to Tampa, Florida. Another source says he was adopted when he was eleven years old and taken to live in Montgomery, Alabama.
His mother wanted him to be a dentist, so Perry was adopted by a quack dentist, for whom he blacked boots before running away at age twelve to join a carnival. He earned his living for a few years as a singer and tap dancer.
Perry began entertaining in his teens as a comic character actor. By the age of twenty, Perry had become a vaudeville artist and the manager of a traveling carnival show. His stage name was a contraction of “step and fetch it”. His accounts of how he adopted the name varied, but generally he claimed that it originated when he performed a vaudeville act with a partner. Perry won money betting on a racehorse named “Step and Fetch It”, and he and his partner decided to adopt the names “Step” and “Fetchit” for their act. When Perry became a solo act he combined the two names, which later became his professional name.
Perry played comic relief roles in a number of films, all based on his character known as “The Laziest Man in the World”. In his personal life, Perry was highly literate and had a concurrent career writing for The Chicago Defender. He made his reputation and earned a five-year studio contract with his performance in In Old Kentucky (1927). The film featured a romantic connection between Perry and actress Carolynne Snowden, a subplot that was decidedly an on-screen rarity for African-American actors working among a white cast.
Perry starred in Hearts in Dixie (1929), one of the first studio productions to boast a predominantly black cast.
For his role as Joe in the 1929 part-talkie film version of Show Boat, Perry’s singing voice was supplied by Jules Bledsoe, who had originated the role in the stage musical. Fetchit did not “sing” “Ol’ Man River”, but instead a new song used in the film, “The Lonesome Road”. Bledsoe was actually seen singing “Ol’ Man River” in the sound prologue shown preceding the film.
Perry was good friends with fellow comic actor Will Rogers.They appeared together in David Harum (1934), Judge Priest(1934), Steamboat ‘Round the Bend (1935), and The County Chairman (1935).
By the mid-1930s, Perry was a bona fide film star, and was the first black actor to become a millionaire. Fetchit appeared in 44 films between 1927 and 1939. In 1940, Perry temporarily stopped appearing in films, having been frustrated in his attempt to get equal pay and billing with his white costars. He returned in 1945, in part due to financial need, though he only appeared in eight more films between 1945 and 1953.
Perry declared bankruptcy in 1947, stating assets of $146 (equal to about $1,566 today) resulting in a return to vaudeville appearing at the Anderson Free Fair in 1949 alongside Singer’s Midgets
He became a friend of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in the 1960s.
After 1953, Perry appeared only in cameos, in the made-for-television movie, Cutter (1972), and the feature films Amazing Grace (1974) and Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood(1976).
He found himself in conflict during his career with civil rights leaders who criticized him personally for the film roles that he portrayed. In 1968, CBS aired an hour-long documentary, Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed, written by Andy Rooney (for which he would receive an Emmy Award) and narrated by Bill Cosby, which criticized the depiction of blacks in American film, and especially singled out Stepin Fetchit for criticism. After the show aired, Perry unsuccessfully sued CBS and the documentary’s producers for defamation of character.
Awards and honors
Fetchit has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category “Motion pictures”.
In 1976, despite popular aversion to his character, the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP awarded Perry a Special NAACP Image Award. Two years after that, he was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
Stepin Fetchit wearing a Fez in “Charlie Chan In Egypt”
Stepin Fetchit – Pillow Talk
Perry spawned imitators, most notably Willie Best (Sleep ‘n Eat) and Mantan Moreland, the scared, wide-eyed manservant of Charlie Chan. (Perry actually played a manservant in the Chan series before Moreland, in 1935’s Charlie Chan in Egypt.)
Perry appeared in a 1930 Our Gang short, A Tough Winter. Previous to Perry entering films the Our Gang shorts had employed several black child actors including Allen Hoskins, Jannie Hoskins, Ernest Morrison and Eugene Jackson. In the sound Our Gang era black actors Matthew Beard and Billie Thomas were featured. The black performers’ personas in Our Gang shorts were the polar opposites of Perry’s persona.
In the 2005 book Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry, African American critic Mel Watkins argued that the Stepin Fetchit character was not truly lazy or simpleminded, but rather deliberately tricked his white employers so that they would do the work instead of him, a technique that developed during American slavery and was referred to as “putting on old massa”, which black audiences of the time would have been familiar with.
Perry was married three times: to Dorothy Stevenson, Winifred Johnson, and Bernice Sims. In 1930 his wife Dorothy gave birth to their son, Jemajo. With Winifred he had a second son in 1938: Donald, who later took his step-father’s name, Lambright. In April 1969, Donald Lambright traveled the Pennsylvania Turnpike shooting people. It was reported that he injured fifteen and killed three, including his wife, before turning a .30 caliber rifle on himself.
Lambright’s death was ruled a murder-suicide, however the circumstances were questioned by his daughter and discussed at length in a self-published book in 2005 about Stepin Fetchit. Even Lincoln Perry himself once reported in a LA Times interview his belief that his son was set-up. It was believed that Lambright’s involvement with the black power movement at the peak of the COINTELPRO program was related to his death. A “mysterious long-haired white man” was reported at the scene of the crime who was thought to have been involved in some way. Ultimately, his death was ruled a murder-suicide when the white man wasn’t found. Perry never provided child support for Lambright and they only met two years before his son’s violent death.
A stroke in 1976 ended Perry’s acting career, and he moved into the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. He died November 19, 1985 from pneumonia and heart failure at age 83. He was buried at Calvary Cemetery in East