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Against the Grain: Black Film Pioneers: Part XII: Leigh Whipper

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Added: 11/25/2013

NOTE: When available, the images in the article below link to a larger version of the image. Some of these images were supplied by the author, some come from the the Hershenson/Allen Archive, and some come from's Auction History.

"Below is a painting by acclaimed artist Lois Mailou Jones done in 1939 called Dans un Cafe a Paris. If his face is familiar, his name is probably not. He is Leigh Whipper and his fame rests on two extraordinary performances in two classic films.

Dans un Cafe a Paris. (Leigh Whipper), 1939

Whipper was born in South Carolina, the son of William Whipper, a former Brigadier during the Civil War, circuit court judge, and member of two Constitutional conventions during Reconstruction, and his second wife, Frances Rollins, a physician and writer. The senior Whipper was named after his uncle, an important anti-slavery activist and organizer in the Underground Railway.

The young Leigh Rollins Whipper attended Howard University Law School but never practiced law because he was drawn to his first love, show business, making his first Broadway appearance in a turn-of-the-century black minstrel show and becoming the first Black member of Actor's Equity in 1913. He made his screen debut as an Indian fakir in Oscar Micheaux's SYMBOL OF THE UNCONQUERED followed by WITHIN OUR GATES (both 1920).

He labored relatively anonymously in the theater until his unusual looks caused Rouben Mamoulian to cast him in the original, non-musical version of PORGY in 1927 as Crabman.

He became a member of the Screen Actors' Guild in 1933 and the Federation of Radio Artists in 1937, the same year he co-founded the Negro Actors' Guild along with such notables as Fredi Washington, Bert Williams, Ethel Waters, W.C. Handy, and Hattie McDaniel.

In 1937 he created the first of his two signature film roles as Crooks, the lonely, embittered, crippled Black farm worker in the Broadway version of John Steinbeck's OF MICE AND MEN with Wallace Ford and Broderick Crawford.

Although the role was not large, it was complex, nuanced, and almost unprecedented for its day. Whipper recreated it for Lewis Milestone's 1939 screen version with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr.

Because of his success the 63 year old began to get other screen offers, but it wasn't until 1943 that he had his second great critical success as Sparks, the Black handyman and preacher who becomes one of the film's moral centers in William A. Wellman's screen adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark's THE OX-BOW INCIDENT.

Whipper's humble, dignified performance earned him critical kudos and his rendition of a Negro spiritual as the lynch mob leaves the Ox-Bow is one of the film's most memorably moving moments.

His only other screen role of note was playing Emperor Haile Selassie in 1943's MISSION TO MOSCOW for which he was honored by the Ethiopian government.

Most of his other film appearances were conventional for their day including his roles as comedic foils for Mantan Moreland in KING OF THE ZOMBIES and Bob Hope in THE ROAD TO ZANZIBAR.

(Below as Momba the Butler in KING OF THE ZOMBIES)

Although it has been reported that because of his unusual looks some film viewers thought Whipper was a white actor in blackface, he assumed the presidency of the Negro Actor's Guild in 1957.

He became embroiled in a very heated public controversy over Samuel Goldwyn's decision to fire Rouben Mamoulian, who had worked on preproduction for eight months on the troubled 1959 film version of PORGY AND BESS. Among other disagreements, Mamoulian was incensed that the producer chose Otto Preminger to replace him. Fifteen years earlier when Preminger was producing LAURA, he became angered when director Mamoulian resisted his suggestions, so he fired him and replaced him himself. When an embittered Mamoulian lost the resultant litigation about his firing by Goldwyn, he invoked charges of racism against Preminger.

Mamoulian had cast the then unknown Whipper in the original 1927 production of PORGY, and now the actor used his position as president of the Negro Screen Actors to call a press conference with Mamoulian's press agent, Russell Birdwell. Whipper claimed that Preminger was "unsympathetic to my people" for unclear reasons, and he announced he was withdrawing from his role of Crabman with allegedly racially insensitive Preminger as director.

Because of his stand Whipper came under sharp criticism by the NAACP and a Past President of the Guild in addition to the cast of PORGY AND BESS, especially Pearl Bailey, who had worked with Preminger previously on CARMEN JONES.

The role of Crabman was eventually played by Scatman Crothers, and the problematic movie became that last produced by Goldwyn.

Whipper was proud of his daughter Leighla (1913-2008), a journalist, who interviewed celebrities like Mary Pickford, Josephine Baker, and her father's OF MICE AND MEN co-star, Lon Chaney, Jr.

Whipper retired in 1972 and was awarded the prestigious Oscar Micheaux Award in 1974. In the 1990s the Philadelphia International Film Festival named an award in his honor. His papers are archived at Atlanta University and the Schomburg Center in New York, which includes correspondence, plays, poems, song lyrics and an unproduced musical-comedy entitled WE'S RISIN': A STORY OF THE SIMPLE LIFE IN THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLKS.

Leigh Whipper died in Harlem at age 98 in 1975."
-Gabe Taverney

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