When recalling the long and undeniably odious history of the depiction of Blacks in American cinema, most film critics and historians would immediately cite Lincoln Theodore Perry, better known as Stepin Fetchit, as the poster child for the coon stereotype and its negative effects.
Lincoln Theodore Perry, aka Stepin Fetchit, in character.
Fetchit’s lazy, simple-minded spook archetype left an indelible mark on American pop culture for decades until being put to death by the Civil Rights Movement and the general public slowly achieving a measure of enlightenment and sensitivity, but what is largely forgotten these days is that Stepin Fetchit was Hollywood’s first Black superstar, and where there is great success imitation almost always follows close behind. There were innumerable Fetchit clones infesting the screen in no time and the majority of them are justly relegated to obscurity, but the example of this “phenomenon” that I would like to bring your attention to is one Willie Best, who, if you can believe it, was at one time billed as “Sleep ‘n Eat” in such triumphs as 1931’s UP POPS THE DEVIL.
I could go on in my own words, but to me the definitive account of Mister Eat’s career is found in SON OF GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS (1986, Villard Books) by Harry and Michael Medved, so I’ll let the Medveds fill you in. Here’s the article, from the section on “The Most Ludicrous Professional Name in Movie History”:
Hollywood’s shameful treatment of black Americans in the first fifty years of this century offers one of the most embarrassing chapters in the history of movies. Nearly all black actors and actresses (as well as blackface impersonators) of the 1930s worked under degrading pseudonyms; the one authentic black superstar of the period, Lincoln Theodore Perry, used the infamous alias “Stepin Fetchit.” Others came and went, including Aunt Jemima, the two Black Crows, Buckwheat, and Snowflake, but none of these clowns of the early talkie era assumed an identity as insulting as the unfortunate Sleep ‘n Eat.
Born Willie Best in rural Mississippi in 1916, the future star came to California as a teenage chauffer for what his official biography later described as “a nice white man.” When his boss returned to the Deep South, young Willie remained in Los Angeles and tried to support himself washing dishes at hash houses, but, as the studio publicists chortled, “he was too slow to make a good living at that.”
His fateful “discovery” by two Hollywood talent scouts came one afternoon as he sat on a fireplug in downtown L.A., broke and hungry. “My gosh, what a type!” one of the movie men enthused to the other. “Another sleepy Stepin Fetchit!” one of the movie men enthused to the other. Willie’s less than energetic response to their offers only increased their conviction that they had made a major find. “Actin’?” he reportedly drawled. “Ain’t never done dat kin’ o’ work.”
Nevertheless, he was soon earning $25 a week toiling long days in the studio, appearing under his new name,” Sleep ‘n Eat.” In his debut role (UP POPS THE DEVIL, 1931) he plays the part of a foot-shuffling, eye-popping laundryman who steals a chicken leg from Carole Lombard’s kitchen. His next picture, THE MONSTER WALKS (1932), offered a far more substantial role, with Sleep ‘n Eat co-starring, alongside “Yogi the Gorilla,” as a frightened chauffer in a haunted house. At one point he looks the monkey in the eye and comments, “Well, I dunno, I had a gran’pappy that looked like him — ‘cept he wasn’t as active!”
And so it went through twelve featured roles, playing slow-witted porters with names such as “Exodus,” “Wellington,” “Catfish,” “Drowsy,” and, inevitably, “Sambo.” When he reached the height of his career in the mid-thirties, Warner Brothers proudly described Mr. Eat as “the man who replaced Stepin Fetchit as the screen’s slowest-moving, slowest–talking human!” In movies such as THE NITWITS, KENTUCKY KERNELS, and THANK YOU, MR. JEEVES, he worked endless variations on the same themes, talking to himself, running in terror from various spooks, and delivering lines of dialog like “Ah jus’ love to take off mah shoes an’ play in de raindrops!”
By 1936 he had accumulated enough clout with the studios to drop the demeaning “Sleep ‘n Eat” designation and begin acting under his own name, though the nature of his roles remained largely unchanged. In fifty-five more films as Willie Best, from TWO IN REVOLT (1936, in which he co-starred with a dog and a horse) to SOUTH OF CALIENTE (1951, with Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Pinky Lee), the veteran performer never departed from the persona of “that lazy, easygoing colored comedian.”
In 1951, an embarrassing arrest for possession of heroin combined with the public’s declining interest in “ethnic humor” to put an end to his long career. Even the smallest roles proved beyond his reach after the drug charges, and the former Sleep ‘n Eat died in 1962 after a decade of difficult living. His passing received only the briefest mention in the Hollywood trade press.
The Golden Turkey here goes not to Sleep ‘n Eat himself, but to those studio publicists who made such relentless attempts over the years to promote him to moviegoers as a comical subhuman. The various press releases designed to advance his career could have served as the basis for either libel suits or race riots had they been issued today.
They describe the star as “coal bin ebony,” with “kinky black hair on a perfectly round dome… He is six feet tall when he straightens up… He thinks he is about 22 years old but is not quite sure… When he is not in a scene he is usually found curled up in a corner sleeping.”
Most insulting of all, the press hacks boasted that Sleep ‘n Eat “gets a nice salary, but the studio only gives him five dollars a week and puts the rest in a trust fund so he will have some of it left, as he spends every cent of it as fast as he gets it, and doesn’t care.”
It’s ironic that the victim of this abuse invariably impressed his co-stars as a sensitive and capable professional. Bob Hope, who worked with him on THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940), once described him as “the best actor I know.” In 1934, while wearing the label of Sleep ‘n Eat, Willie Best sadly confided to a black journalist: “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 real bad parts… But what’s an actor to do? Either you do it or get out.”