William “Willie” Best a.k.a “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” (1916-1962) was born on this day.
Like a character out of one his own films, Best came to Hollywood as a chauffeur, driving a vacationing couple – and just stayed to partake of the Milk and Honey. Almost instantly he became a successful character actor in comedy ensembles (he is sometimes unjustly described as a bit player which makes him sound like an extra — but he sometimes got substantial roles).
He is less well remembered today than Stepin Fetchit for two reasons, I think: one, he stopped using his more colorful but demeaning handle after about a half dozen movies, whereas Fetchit used his screen name throughout his career; and two, Best died sadly young, aged 45, so he didn’t live long enough for the late career appreciation that guys like Fetchit, Mantan Moreland and other experienced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ironically, Best’s stereotypical African American representations were far less heinous than Stepin Fetchit’s.
It is not surprising to observe that his first film was Harold Lloyd’s Feet First (1930) – – Lloyd had also given Sunshine Sammy his start. Best worked with many of the great comedy teams and franchises of the day: with Shirley Temple (in the kind of roles we usually associate with Bill Robinson) in Little Miss Marker (1934) and The Littlest Rebel (1936); with Wheeler and Woolsey in Kentucky Kernels (1934), The Nitwits (1935) and Silly Billies (1936); with Our Gang in General Spanky (1936); the Blondie films Blondie (1938) and Blondie on a Budget (1940); the Maisie films (Maisie Gets Her Man, 1942), and several of the Scattergood Baines comedies with Guy Kibee. One of his best roles was in The Ghost Breakers (1940) with Bob Hope , in which he was fifth billed and had something approaching a real role to play (although he was still a stereotyped servant).
Best’s list of credits is LENGTHY, mostly spook comedies, mysteries, horror films and westerns. And just as Mantan Moreland was comic relief in numerous Charlie Chan films, Willie Best served a similar function in Mr. Moto films. A drug arrest ended his film career; he worked in tv sit coms in the early 50s, then retired. Cancer killed him at age 45.
For more on comedy film history and comedians like Willie Best please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc