Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, aka “Stepin Fetchit,” aka “the Laziest Man in the World,” was the African-American star of many wildly successful comedy movies in the 1920s and 1930s.
He had a hell of a life. He was the first black actor to earn more than a million dollars, and first to get featured credit on a film.
He was born in Key West, Florida, to West Indian immigrants.
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.
He performed in vaudeville as a teen, and managed a traveling carnival show when he was 20.
His character in film was billed as the Laziest Man in the World. He appeared in 44 films between 1927 and 1939, sometimes alongside his good friend Will Rogers. Perry also maintained a writing career during that time.
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 [Americans] 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.
He went bankrupt, had a troubled family life, and spent the latter years of his life fighting the perception that his earlier movies were racist. He sued NBC over a documentary about black entertainers, written by Andy Rooney and narrated by Bill Cosby.
I think we saw that documentary in high school. It made the point that while Stepin Fetchit’s movies might be racist, the man himself had a reputation for showing up on time, sober, knowing his lines and ready to work. And the movies made tons of money. So Perry paved the way for other black performers to do more respectable roles.