William Best (May 27, 1913[1][2][3] – February 27, 1962), known professionally as Willie Best or Sleep 'n' Eat,[4] was an American television and film actor.[5][6]

Willie Best
Best in Dangerous Money (1946)
William Best

(1913-05-27)May 27, 1913
DiedFebruary 27, 1962(1962-02-27) (aged 48)
Resting placeValhalla Memorial Park Cemetery
Other namesSleep 'n' Eat
Years active1930–1955

Best was one of the first African American film actors and comedians to become well known. In the 21st century, his work, like that of Stepin Fetchit, is sometimes reviled because he was often called upon to play stereotypically lazy, illiterate, and/or simple-minded characters in films. Of the 124 films he appeared in, he received screen credit in at least 77, an unusual feat for an African American bit player.

Stage edit

A native of Sunflower, Mississippi, Best reached Hollywood as a chauffeur for a vacationing couple. He decided to stay in the region and began his performing career with a traveling show in southern California. He was regularly hired as a character actor in Hollywood films after a talent scout discovered him on stage.

Motion pictures edit

Best in a photo from Film Star Who's Who (1938)

Willie Best appeared in more than one hundred films of the 1930s and 1940s. Although several sources state that for years he was billed only as "Sleep n' Eat", Best received credit under this moniker instead of his real name in only six movies: his first film as a bit player (Harold Lloyd's Feet First) and in Up Pops the Devil (1931), The Monster Walks (1932), Kentucky Kernels and West of the Pecos (both 1934), and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935). He thereafter usually received credit as "Willie Best" or "William Best".

In his early films Best clearly imitated Stepin Fetchit,[citation needed] delivering dialogue slowly in a thick and almost incoherent dialect, and reacting to things with a pop-eyed stare and slack-jawed amazement or bewilderment. Best later refined his screen character, abandoning the Fetchit mannerisms but retaining his natural comic reactions and dialect. In reality he was far from the slow-witted clown he often portrayed; he was well aware of being typecast as "lazy darkey" characters: "I often think about these roles I have to play. Most of them are pretty broad. Sometimes I tell the director and he cuts out the bad parts... But what's an actor going to do? Either you do it or get out."[7] Mitchell Leisen, who directed Willie Best in Suddenly It's Spring, described him as "the most natural actor I've ever seen."[8] Comedian Bob Hope similarly acclaimed him as "the best actor I know",[9] while the two were working together in 1940 on The Ghost Breakers.[10]

Dudley Dickerson (left) and Best in Dangerous Money (1946)

As a supporting actor, Best, like many black actors of his era, was regularly cast in domestic worker or service-oriented roles (though a few times he played the role echoing his previous occupation as a private chauffeur). He was often seen making a brief comic turn as a hotel, airline, or train porter, as well as an elevator operator, custodian, butler, valet, waiter, deliveryman, and once as a launch pilot (in the 1939 movie Mr. Moto in Danger Island). Willie Best received screen credit most of the time, which was unusual for "bit players"; most in the 1930s and 1940s were not accorded due credit. This also happened to white actors in small roles, but black actors were not credited even when their roles were larger. In more than 80 of his movies, he was given a proper character name (as opposed to simple descriptions such as "room service waiter" or "shoe-shine boy"), beginning with his second film.[citation needed]

He also played the character of "Hipp" in three of RKO's six Scattergood Baines films with Guy Kibbee: Scattergood Baines (1941), Scattergood Survives a Murder (1942), and Cinderella Swings It in 1943. Actor Paul White, who played a young version of Best's "Hipp" in the first film, went on to play "Hipp" in the next three films; Best returned to the role in the last two.

Mantan Moreland, one of Willie Best's contemporaries, played "Birmingham Brown" the chauffeur in the Charlie Chan films. When Moreland took temporary leave of the series to tour in vaudeville, Willie Best took over Moreland's role (as "Chattanooga Brown") in The Red Dragon in 1945 and Dangerous Money in 1946.

Arrests edit

Best was fond of using recreational narcotics, which resulted in at least two well-publicized arrests. In 1942 he was arrested for possession of marijuana,[11] and in 1951 he was arrested for possession of heroin.[12] The 1951 arraignment resulted in a $250 fine and three years' probation. The adverse publicity hurt Best's career; he would make no further films after the 1951 Roy Rogers western South of Caliente.

Television edit

Willie Best was rescued from professional oblivion by veteran producer Hal Roach, who regarded Best as one of the greatest talents he had ever met. Roach didn't care about Best's personal life as long as Best remained professional in acting roles. Best worked almost exclusively for Roach in 1950s television. He played Willie, the house servant/handyman and close friend of the title character of the Stu Erwin sitcom The Trouble with Father, for its entire run from 1950 to 1955.[13] He became familiar to early-TV audiences as Charlie, the elevator operator on CBS's My Little Margie, from 1953 to 1955.[14] He also played Billy Slocum in the syndicated drama Waterfront (1954).[15] Perhaps his most surprising television work was in a Christmas-themed episode of Racket Squad, in which he played a straight character role without comedy or dialect.

Death edit

Best died on February 27, 1962, at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, of cancer at age 48. He was buried (by the Motion Picture Fund) on March 5, 1962, at Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery.

Legacy edit

Best's "Sleep n' Eat" moniker surfaced again in the 2000 motion picture satire Bamboozled, directed by Spike Lee. In the film a "twenty-first-century minstrel show" is televised starring two African American performers, one of whom (portrayed by Tommy Davidson) plays a character named "Sleep n' Eat". In a nod to Mantan Moreland, his on-stage counterpart is named "Mantan".

Filmography edit

Year Title Role Notes
1930 Ladies of Leisure George - the Elevator Operator Uncredited
1930 Feet First Charcoal - Janitor Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1930 Deep South
1931 The Virtuous Husband Luftus Alternative title: What Wives Don't Want
1931 Up Pops the Devil Laundryman Uncredited
1931 The Guilty Generation Club Merlin Doorman Uncredited
1932 The Monster Walks Exodus Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1932 Disorderly Conduct Man at Police Station Uncredited
1934 Little Miss Marker Dizzy Memphis Uncredited
1934 Kentucky Kernels Buckshot Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1934 West of the Pecos Jonah Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1935 Murder on a Honeymoon Willie, the Porter Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1935 The Nitwits Sleepy
1935 The Arizonian Pompey
1935 Jalna Sam, the Janitor Uncredited
1935 Hot Tip Apollo
1935 Annie Oakley Second Cook Uncredited
1935 To Beat the Band Elevator Operator Uncredited
1935 The Littlest Rebel James Henry, a Cary slave
1936 Muss 'Em Up Janitor at Spivali's Bar Uncredited
1936 The Lady Consents Sam Uncredited
1936 Silly Billies Excitement Uncredited
1936 Two in Revolt Eph
1936 Murder on a Bridle Path High Pockets
1936 The Bride Walks Out Smokie – at marriage bureau
1936 The Green Pastures Henry - the Angel Uncredited
1936 Down the Stretch Noah Credited as William Best
1936 Mummy's Boys Catfish
1936 Thank You, Jeeves! Drowsy
1936 Make Way for a Lady William Townley - Jackson's Chauffeur Uncredited
1936 General Spanky Henry
1936 Night Waitress Cars For Rent attendant Uncredited
1937 We Who Are About to Die Airport Porter Uncredited
1937 Racing Lady Brass
1937 Criminal Lawyer Janitor Uncredited
1937 Breezing Home Speed Credited as William Best
1937 You Can't Buy Luck Airline Porter Uncredited
1937 Meet the Missus Mose – Shoe Shine Boy
1937 Super-Sleuth Warts
1937 Mississippi Moods
1937 The Lady Fights Back McTavish
1937 Saturday's Heroes Sam
1937 Deep South Short film
1938 Crashing Hollywood Train Porter Uncredited
1938 Everybody's Doing It Jasper - Elevator Operator Uncredited
1938 Gold Is Where You Find It Joshua
1938 Merrily We Live George W. Jones
1938 Goodbye Broadway Jughead
1938 Vivacious Lady Train Porter
1938 I'm From the City Train Porter Uncredited
1938 Youth Takes a Fling George
1938 Straight Place and Show Hannibal Uncredited
1938 Spring Madness Hotel Porter Uncredited
1938 Blondie Porter
1939 The Saint Strikes Back Algernon Uncredited
1939 Mr. Moto in Danger Island Launch Pilot Uncredited
1939 Nancy Drew... Trouble Shooter Apollo Johnson
1939 Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation Driver Uncredited
1939 Way Down South Chimney Sweep Uncredited
1939 Blackmail Bunny - the Janitor Uncredited
1939 At the Circus Redcap Uncredited
1939 Blondie Brings Up Baby Hotel Janitor Uncredited
1939 The Covered Trailer Baltimore
1939 Private Detective Norton's Valet
1939 Miracle on Main Street Duke
1939 Slightly Honorable Art, the Elevator Operator
1940 I Take This Woman Sambo
1940 Blondie on a Budget Newspaper Boy Uncredited
1940 The Ghost Breakers Alex
1940 Money and the Woman George Washington Jones, Dave's Servant
1940 Who Killed Aunt Maggie? Andrew
1941 High Sierra Algernon
1941 Flight from Destiny George
1941 The Body Disappears Willie Credited as Willie Best
1941 Scattergood Baines Hipp
1941 The Lady from Cheyenne George
1941 Kisses for Breakfast Arnold
1941 Highway West Bub Wellington
1941 The Smiling Ghost Clarence
1941 Nothing But the Truth Samuel
1941 The Body Disappears Willie
1942 Whispering Ghosts Euclid White Brown
1942 Juke Girl Jo-Mo
1942 Maisie Gets Her Man Sam, Room Service Waiter Uncredited
1942 A-Haunting We Will Go Waiter
1942 Busses Roar Sunshine
1942 Scattergood Survives a Murder Hipp
1942 The Hidden Hand Eustis the Chauffeur
1943 The Powers Girl Men's Room Attendant Uncredited
1943 Cinderella Swings It Hipp
1943 Cabin in the Sky Second Idea Man
1943 Dixie Steward Uncredited
1943 The Kansan Bones
1943 Thank Your Lucky Stars Soldier Uncredited
1944 The Adventures of Mark Twain George, Twain's Butler Uncredited
1944 Home in Indiana Mo' Rum Uncredited
1944 The Girl Who Dared Woodrow
1944 The Mark of the Whistler Men's Room Attendant Uncredited
1944 Music for Millions Red Cap Uncredited
1945 The Monster and the Ape Flash Serial
1945 Pillow to Post Lucille
1945 Hold That Blonde Willie Shelley
1945 She Wouldn't Say Yes Porter Uncredited
1945 The Red Dragon Chattanooga Brown
1946 The Bride Wore Boots Joe
1946 The Face of Marble Piano Delivery Man Uncredited
1946 Dangerous Money Chattanooga Brown Alternative title: Charlie Chan in Dangerous Money
1947 Suddenly, It's Spring Porter on train
1947 The Red Stallion Jackson
1948 Half Past Midnight Andy Jones
1948 Smart Woman Train Porter Uncredited
1948 Shanghai Chest Willie Best, in jail cell Uncredited
1949 Jiggs and Maggie in Jackpot Jitters Willie Uncredited
1950 High and Dizzy Wesley Short
1950-1955 The Stu Erwin Show Willie, The Handyman 30 episodes
1951 South of Caliente Willie
1951-1952 Racket Squad Janitor / Cleaning Man 2 episodes
1953 Mystery Theater. Mark Saber of the Homicide Squad. The Case of the Invisible Death Manservant / Corpus
1952-1955 My Little Margie Charlie 21 episodes
1954-1955 Waterfront Billy Slocum / Willie Slocum 18 episodes, (final appearance)

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ Cox, James L. (2001). The Mississippi Almanac : The Ultimate Reference on the State, 2001-2002. Yazoo City, MS : Computer Search & Research. ISBN 9780964354524; Reproduced in "Black History... Mississippi Style". The Mississippi Link. March 6, 2002. Retrieved February 4, 2021 via Proquest.
  2. ^ Radishofski, Kathryn. "Willie Best (1913-1962), Actor". MississippiEncyclopedia.org. Retrieved February 4, 2021.
  3. ^ Ellenburger, Allan (2001). Celebrities in Los Angeles Cemeteries: A Directory. Jefferson, NC ; McFarland & Company. Page 201. ISBN 0-7864-0983-5.
  4. ^ Littleton, Darryl (2006). Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How black Americans Taught Us to Laugh. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 46. ISBN 9781557836809. Retrieved August 5, 2018.
  5. ^ "Willie Best - About This Person - Movies & TV - NYTimes.com". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2012. Archived from the original on November 4, 2012. Retrieved March 24, 2016.
  6. ^ "Movie Review - The Smiling Ghost - Poor Ghost - NYTimes.com". Retrieved March 24, 2016.
  7. ^ 1934 interview with Willie Best, quoted in Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film 1900-1942, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 106.
  8. ^ "This Acting Business Is Not Hard to Comedian". The Pittsburgh Courier. April 27, 1946. Page 23. Retrieved February 5, 2021.
  9. ^ Harry and Michael Medved, Son of Golden Turkey Awards, p. 28, Angus and Robertson Publishers, Australia, 1986
  10. ^ "Movie Review – The Ghost Breakers – THE SCREEN; 'Ghost Breakers,' a Comic Thriller, at Paramount – Spy Pictures at the Rialto and Palace – NYTimes.com". Retrieved March 24, 2016.
  11. ^ The Afro-American, "Willie Best, Noted Screen Comedian, Arrested on Narcotics Charge," Sept. 19, 1942, p. 15.
  12. ^ Atlanta Daily World, "Willie Best Is Arrested on Narcotics Charge," June 15, 1951, p. 1.
  13. ^ Terrace, Vincent. Encyclopedia of Television Shows, 1925 Through 2010, McFarland & Company, 2011, pp. 732-733. ISBN 978-0-7864-6477-7.
  14. ^ Terrace, p. 1109.
  15. ^ Terrace, p. 1154.

External links edit