Stepin Fetchit was the stage name of American comedian and film actor Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (May 30, 1902–November 19, 1985). His typical film persona and stage name have long been synonymous with the stereotype of the servile, shiftless, simple-minded black man in early 20th Century American film. There has been a more recent revisionist view that sees his film persona as ultimately subversive of the status quo. Perry parlayed the Fetchit persona into a successful film career, eventually becoming a millionaire, the first black actor in history to do so.
Read "An Uncomfortable Character: Stepin Fetchit’s Dead-End Role," by Scott Eyman, a review of
Stepin Fetchit: The Life & Times of Lincoln Perry, by Mel Watkins, free from the New York Observer. Born in Key West, Florida, to West Indian immigrants, Perry began entertaining in his teens as a comic character actor. His stage name was a contraction of "step and fetch it," suggesting a servile character. He played comic relief roles in a number of films, all based on his character known as "The Laziest Man in the World." Despite this, Perry was an actor in the truest sense of the word; "Stepin Fetchit," no matter what the names of the roles he played on screen, was himself a Perry character. In fact, Perry was highly literate and had a concurrent career writing for the Chicago Defender, one of the nation's best-respected black newspapers.
If the Fetchit persona derives, too, from a common manipulation technique used by blacks to mitigate their status by pretending to be unintelligent and fulfilling the low expectations of whites, Perry himself was not afraid to use it off screen. Auditioning for a role in a remake of In Old Kentucky, Perry stayed in character before and after the audition, often feigning low intelligence or skipping or mumbling lines he did not like.
Perry starred in Hearts in Dixie (1929), one of the first all-talkie, big-studio productions to boast a predominately African-American 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. Curiously enough, however, 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 did not invent the stereotype to which his stage name became synonymous, but Stepin Fetchit's image was used to popularize it. Many black characters in the movies were based on Stepin Fetchit, including Stymie in the classic Our Gang comedies, though like Perry (a fact often forgotten about him), Stymie had his ways of outwitting his assumed superiors. (As it happens, Perry repaid the reference: he guest-starred in an Our Gang short, A Tough Winter, intended as the pilot film for a Fetchit short subject series producer Hal Roach had planned but which never materialized.)
In due course, the Stepin Fetchit image came to be seen as degrading enough that Perry's films rarely get a screening now. Nor have they seen widespread video release. On the rare occasions the films are shown, most of his segments are deleted. But film historians across racial lines have come to see that Perry was in fact a gifted comic. He was also the first black actor to become a millionaire. Unfortunately, Perry was a far better actor than he was a manager of his own money, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1947.
Perry converted to Islam in the 1960s and became a friend of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, with both men claiming Perry taught Ali a particular punch. But Perry also found himself in conflict during his career with civil rights leaders who criticized him personally for the film roles he portrayed. However, Perry had something of the last laugh: in 1976, the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP awarded him a Special NAACP Image Award, acknowledging that, whatever the stereotype his famous alter ego had inspired, his had been a trailblazing career without which many black film careers might have been more difficult to make. Two years after that, Perry was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
He appeared in 54 films between 1925 and 1976, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category "Motion pictures". A stroke in 1976 ended Perry's acting career, and he died November 19, 1985 from pneumonia.