Willie Best

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Willie Best

William Best
BornWilliam Best
(1916-05-27)May 27, 1916
Sunflower, Mississippi, U.S.
DiedFebruary 27, 1962(1962-02-27) (aged 45)
Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of deathCancer
Resting placeValhalla Memorial Park Cemetery
Other namesSleep 'n' Eat
OccupationActor
Years active1930–1955
 
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Willie Best

William Best
BornWilliam Best
(1916-05-27)May 27, 1916
Sunflower, Mississippi, U.S.
DiedFebruary 27, 1962(1962-02-27) (aged 45)
Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of deathCancer
Resting placeValhalla Memorial Park Cemetery
Other namesSleep 'n' Eat
OccupationActor
Years active1930–1955

William "Willie" Best (May 27, 1916 – February 27, 1962), sometimes known as Sleep n' Eat, was an American television and film actor.[1][2]

Best was one of the first well-known African American film actors and comedians, although his work, like that of Stepin Fetchit, is today 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 of them, an unusual feat for a bit player.

Contents

Career as an actor

Stage

A native of Sunflower, Mississippi, Best had arrived in Hollywood as chauffeur for a vacationing couple, and began his performing career with a traveling show in southern California. He became a regular character actor in Hollywood films after a talent scout discovered him on stage.

Film

Best appeared in more than one hundred films of the 1930s and 1940s. Although several sources state that for years he was only billed as “Sleep n’ Eat,” Best received credit under this moniker instead of his real name in only five movies: his first film as a bit player (Harold Lloyd’s Feet First) and his next four films that followed (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.”

Best was alternately loved as a great clown, then reviled, then pitied, finally virtually forgotten. Hal Roach called him one of the greatest talents he had ever met. In a similar gesture, Bob Hope acclaimed him as, "the best actor I know,"[3] as the two worked together on The Ghost Breakers in 1940.[4]

As a bit player, Best, like many black actors of his era, was regularly cast in domestic worker or service-oriented roles (a few times he played the role that echoed his previous occupation – that of a private chauffeur), and was usually seen making a brief comedic appearance as a hotel, airline or train porter; but also as elevator operators, custodians, butlers, valets, waiters, deliverymen – and at least once as a launch pilot (in 1939’s Mr. Moto in Danger Island).

Best’s work as a bit player was unusual in that he received screen credit most of the time. The largest part of bit players in 1930s and '40s did not. Walter Brennan, for example, made 125 movies between 1930 and 1939, but was credited on only 57 of them.[5]

Best’s career was also unusual because he was regularly – in over 80 of his movies – given a proper character name (as opposed to simple descriptions like ‘room service waiter’ or ‘shoe shine boy’), starting with his second film.[6] By comparison, Lucille Ball wasn’t billed with a proper character name until her 14th film,[7] and some bit players like Robert Dudley and Ethelreda Leopold were only rarely billed with anything more than a character description.[8][9]

Best played “Chattanooga Brown” in two Charlie Chan films, 1945’s The Red Dragon and 1946’s Dangerous Money. He also played the character of “Hipp” in three of RKO’s six Scattergood Baines films with Guy Kibbee: 1941’s Scattergood Baines, 1942’s Scattergood Survives a Murder, and 1943’s Cinderella Swings It. (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).

Television

Best became known to early TV audiences as Charlie, the elevator operator on CBS's My Little Margie from 1953 to 1955.

He also played Willie, the house servant/handyman and close friend of the title character of ABC’s The Trouble with Father, for its entire run from 1950 to 1955.

Death

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

Legacy

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 one of Best's most respected contemporaries, his on-stage counterpart is named "Mantan."

Selected filmography

YearTitleRoleNotes
1930Deep South
1930Feet FirstJanitorCredited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1931The Virtuous HusbandLuftusAlternative title: What Wives Don't Want
1931Up Pops the DevilLaundrymanUncredited
1932The Monster WalksExodusCredited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1934Little Miss MarkerDizzy MemphisUncredited
1934West of the PecosJonahCredited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1935Murder on a HoneymoonWillie, the PorterCredited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1935Annie OakleySecond CookUncredited
1935The Littlest RebelJames Henry, a Cary slave
1936The Bride Walks OutSmokie - at marriage bureau
1936Mummy's BoysCatfish
1936Thank You, JeevesDrowsy
1937Breezing HomeSpeedCredited as William Best
1937The Lady Fights BackMcTavish
1937Deep Southshort film
1938Merrily We LiveGeorge W. Jones
1938Gold Is Where You Find ItJoshua
1938Youth Takes a FlingGeorge
1938Vivacious LadyTrain Porter
1939Nancy Drew... Trouble ShooterApollo Johnson
1939Miracle on Main StreetDuke
1940The Ghost BreakersAlex
1940Who Killed Aunt Maggie?Andrew
1941High SierraAlgernon
1941Scattergood BainesHipp
1941Nothing But the TruthSamuel
1941The Smiling GhostClarence
1942Whispering GhostsEuclid White Brown
1942The Hidden HandEustis the Chauffeur
1943Cabin in the SkySecond Idea Man
1943Thank Your Lucky StarsSoldierUncredited
1944The Adventures of Mark TwainGeorge, Twain's ButlerUncredited
1944The Girl Who DaredWoodrow
1945Hold That BlondeWillie Shelley
1945The Red DragonChattanooga Brown
1946The Bride Wore BootsJoe
1946Dangerous MoneyChattanooga BrownAlternative title: Charlie Chan in Dangerous Money
1947Suddenly, It's SpringPorter on train
1947The Red StallionJackson
1948Smart WomanTrain PorterUncredited
1949Jiggs and Maggie in Jackpot JittersWillieUncredited
1950High and DizzyWesley
1950 to 1955The Stu Erwin ShowWillie, The Handyman30 episodes
1951South of CalienteWillie
1951 to 1952Racket SquadJanitor
Cleaning Man
2 episodes
1952 to 1955My Little MargieCharlie21 episodes
1954 to 1955WaterfrontBilly Slocum/Willie Slocum18 episodes

See also

References

External links