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Against the Grain: Black Film Pioneers: Part XV: Bill Pickett & Lorenzo Tucker

Return to Against the Grain Archive
Added: 12/23/2013

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.

"Bill Pickett

If an historian looked at Hollywood films of the Golden Era, he never would have believed African-Americans played a role in the civilizing of the West. Bill Pickett was a Texas-born American cowboy who became very well-known on the rodeo circuit as "The Bulldogger" and "The Dusky Demon."

Right: "Bulldogging" Bill Pickett biting a cow's lip

Pickett was born the son of former slaves in 1870 on the Chisolm Trail. After seeing a bulldog control a runaway calf by biting its lip and holding on, he demonstrated the technique to amazed local cowboys. He dropped out of school in the 5th grade and joined the rodeo circuit where he perfected his act. Pickett would jump off his horse and literally bite the bull on the lip until bringing him down. This eventually morphed into the wrestling-style sport bulldogging is today. Pickett initially formed his own Wild West show with his brothers and later joined the prestigious 101 Ranch Show, working with the likes of Cowboy Bill Watts, Tom MIx, Buffalo Bill, and Will Rogers.

Because of segregation and racism, Pickett was forced to call himself a Comanche in order to be hired in certain circumstances. Unfortunately he made only two known movies: THE CRIMSON SKULL and, of course, THE BULLDOGGER before his untimely death in 1932 after being kicked in the head by a wild bronco. He was later inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1971, 101 years after his birth.

Pickett was honored on a postage stamp in 1994 (above) with other Western legends like Jim Bridger, Bat Masterson, Jim Beckwith, Wyatt Earp, John C. Fremont, Sacajawea, and Buffalo Bill.

Lorenzo Tucker
Tucker was known during his heyday of the 20s through the 40s as the "Colored Valentino" and enjoyed great fame as a romantic leading man. Tucker attended Temple University in his home town of Philadelphia and got into show business at age 19 as a dancer in Atlantic City and later toured with Bessie Smith. He worked on Broadway and in the infamous Cotton Club during the Harlem Renaissance of the Twenties.

The actor's rugged good lucks soon made him a matinee idol on the race film circuit and in a 20 year period appeared in some eleven films for Oscar Micheaux (some sources claim eighteen) including THE WAGES OF SIN (1929), THE BLACK KING (1931), VEILED ARTISTOCRATS (1932), HARLEM AFTER MIDNIGHT (1934) and UNDERWORLD (1937). Unfortunately, some of these films have been lost. The actor often pointed out the contradiction of his reputation as the "Colored Valentino" and claimed the Italian film star had a darker complexion than his. It was Micheaux's use of Tucker and other light-skinned black actors in lead roles that led to criticism of the producer.

Even more controversial was Tucker's being cast as a pimp in the play THE CONSTANT SINNER. Star Mae West played a prostitute, and they shared kissing scenes. When the play opened, it caused a great controversy and forced the Schuberts, the play's producers, to recast with a Greek actor in dark make-up in Tuker's role. The irrepressible Miss West kept Tucker in the play in minor roles calling him a Spaniard. It is reported that the irrepressible Mae referred to him on stage as her "Spanish fly."

Tucker served his country as a B-17 tail-gunner during World War II on 15 missions. After his plane was shot down, and he was wounded, he entered the infantry in time to participate in D-Day. Despite some stage and screen appearances, his fame dissipated with the end of the race film era in the late 40s.

Tucker' knowledge of photography helped him become an autopsy technician in the NYC Medical Office during the 60s, and he reportedly worked on the bodies of Malcolm X and former co-star Nina Mae McKinney.

During the 70s, he moved to California in a effort to revive his career. Although he was not successful, he developed into a talented photographer. He became an authority on "race films" and worked for their preservation. In 1981 he was awarded the Audelco Recognition Award for excellence in Black theater and was inducted into the Black Filmmakers' Hall of Fame in 1974.

Tucker passed on from cancer in 1986 at the age of 79."
-Gabe Taverney

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