Happy Birthday, Canada Lee!

In Uncategorized on March 4, 2020 at 7:18 am

Screenshot 2020-03-03 at 11.02.47 PMPerhaps the most shamefully neglected of all great American actors, he is rarely mentioned, although he took up the mantle of Paul Robeson and helped pave the way for Sidney Poitier, etc. Before he found himself as an actor he worked a myriad of jobs including as a quite successful welterweight boxer who, unfortunately, lost an eye after a particularly savage bout.

It was Orson Welles who made his acting career when he cast him in his legendary all black MACBETH in 1936, in the role of Banquo, and Welles became a lifelong theatrical impetus to Lee, probably most known today for his role in Hitchcock’s queasy LIFEBOAT. He broke all kinds of grounds in the theater: first black actor to play Caliban in THE TEMPEST, first black producer on Broadway with “On Whitman Avenue,” a race play admired by Eleanor Roosevelt, in which he also starred in 1946. In ‘The Duchess of Malfi” that same year, he became the first black actor  to play a white role. To change races he used, for the first time onstage, a whitening paste originally devised to conceal burn marks.


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Langston Hughes wrote a couple of plays for him that never got produced and I am dying to know what they’re like.


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summit of talent

And, this country being – forever – the big ole, stupid, roiling race mess that it has always been and continues to be, he rose to the heights and was brought down during the shameful McCarthy era, like Robeson, whom he refused to name and was blacklisted for it. The stress undoubtedly contributed to the heart attack he died of at the ridiculously young age of 45, in 1952. You can visit him in Woodlawn cemetery – and I dearly hope that someone gets to work on a major play film about this tragic titan, who deserves a fitting tribute far more than anyone I can think of.



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