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Against the Grain: Black Film Pioneers: Part XVI: Kenneth Spencer and Bill Walker

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Added: 12/30/2013

Kenneth Spencer

Kenneth Spencer had a commanding presence and a rich bass-baritone voice as evidenced in the two stage productions of SHOWBOAT he appeared in which lead to an MGM contract. He appeared in two A pictures at Metro: BATAAN, where he played a black soldier fighting alongside whites, very rare for a contemporary WWII film, and CABIN IN THE SKY with an all-Black cast that included Rex Ingram and Louis Armstrong.

Spencer didn't believe that there was a future for African-American actors in the U.S., and, like Paul Robeson, went to Europe, where he appeared in ten German films, German television, and the concert stage.

Clearly America's loss was Germany's gain. His lone American appearance during that long self-imposed exile was in a TV production of THE EMPORER JONES.

Spencer felt that the atmosphere in Hollywood was changing, and he was returning to the US on February 25, 1964 when the DC-8 he was traveling in crashed into Lake Pontchartrain, killing all 58 passengers and crew on board. It was the worst crash ever involving a DC-8.

Ironically, less than two months after the tragedy, Sidney Poitier would become the first Black actor to win an Oscar. Kenneth Spencer was only 50 years old,.

Bill Walker

Although few movie fans will recognize his name, William 'Bill' Walker was one of the most familiar character actors of the 50s, 60s and 70s with over 170 credits. He was born in Pendleton, California in 1896, the son of a freed slave and was the first black graduate of Pendleton High School.

After serving in France during World War I, he became a band leader and singer before breaking into acting on Broadway. His most notable appearance on the Great White Way was in GOLDEN DAWN in 1929, a musical co-written by Oscar Hammerstein II.

Walker made his film debut at age 50 as Sam the Cook in the 1946 adaptation of Hemingway's THE KILLERS and continued to play cooks, butlers, porters and servants. Although these roles were subservient, he always played them with grace, dignity and a genteel manner.

In 1952 he was elected to the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors. One of his first things he did was join SAG President Ronald Reagan in presenting a report to the Producers' Guild entitled "More and Better Roles for Negroes in Motion Pictures." This action was unprecedented for its time, and though it didn't produce immediate results, Walker continued to crusade for improvements in the casting of black actors. He joined the NAACP in 1963 in negotiating a non-discrimination clause in SAG's theatrical agreement.

He left the Board in 1971 but in 1972 his tireless efforts produced an Ethnic Minorities Committee within SAG as opportunities improved for minority actors throughout the industry.

Walker was married for fifty years to Peggy Cartwright, the last surviving member of the original Our Gang group. It was the first successful interracial marriage between Hollywood actors and ended with his 1992 death from cancer at age 95. He is buried alongside his wife in Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California.

His most memorable role was undoubtedly that of Reverend Sykes in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Gregory Peck credits Walker's line to his children about standing up as their father passes through the courtroom as helping him win the Oscar."
-Gabe Taverney

Let's have a special thanks for Gabe Taverney for this wonderful series of 16 "Against the Grain" articles. And if you missed any of them, remember that you can read them all in the Against the Grain Archive.

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