Godfrey Cambridge: A Man for His Moment

Godfrey Cambridge (1933-1976) is badly missed.

There’s no way in hell Cambridge didn’t help to drastically rewire the white American public’s impressions of black America, let alone of African Americans in show business. The distance between Stepin Fetchit and Godfrey Cambridge is not just far, it’s dimensional. Both were actors, comedians, and artists. But they seem to be operating in entirely different planes of existence. Racists could insist upon hating Godfrey Cambridge if that was their unnatural bent, but they’d have to do some hardcore lying to themselves to pretend a guy like that was inferior. It was becoming possible for African Americans of precocious intellect to be themselves in mass media without downplaying or apologizing for their gifts. At the same historical moment Cambridge was gaining a foothold in show business, CBS pulled Amos and Andy off the air due to pressure from the NAACP. The metamorphosis was that rapid.

I remember him well from when I was a kid. There is no one around like him today that I can think of. All at once, a stand-up comedian, a stage actor, a movie/tv star, and a Civil Rights activist and spokesman. He was a frequent presence on talk shows in conversation with guys like Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and David Frost, and as such he was the best possible guest. He was not only thoughtful, erudite, brutally frank and fearlessly insightful, he was also charming, quick, and spontaneously, wickedly funny. He had an intelligence that commanded respect. In some ways he came off more like James Baldwin or some other public intellectual than he did other comedians, except that he was funnier. He had polish and class, but he was also mischievous. He would giggle at the devilish things he said. One comic tactic he employed, whether consciously or unconsciously, which was very effective, was to shift gears on a dime between an articulate, almost bookish verbal mode verbal mode…to hip street speech.

Cambridge’s parents were from British Guyana. He spent part of his childhood in Nova Scotia to take advantage of the better schools. From 1949 to 1952 he attended medical school at Hofstra University, but in the end decided he wanted to act. He worked at a succession of odd jobs until he got his first Broadway part, as a butler in Herman Wouk’s Nature’s Way, featuring Bea Arthur, Orson Bean, Sorrell Booke, and Betsy Von Furstenberg. What a cast! That same year he got walk on roles in a couple of episodes of The Phil Silvers Show. In 1959, a small role in the film The Last Angry Man. In 1961 he won an Obie for his performance in the original production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show. This was followed by his 1962 performance in Ossie Davis’s Purlie Victorious, for which he was nominated for a Tony. On this production he met Barbara Ann Tee, who became his wife that year. In 1963, Teer was one of the founders of the group that became the Negro Ensemble Company.

At the same time, Cambridge was building his career as a stand up comedian, performing at top clubs like the hungry i. His debut comedy album (the first of four) Here’s Godfrey Cambridge, Ready or Not, came out in 1964. By the next year he was making thousands of dollars per engagement, appearing on tv variety shows, and was named one of the top African American comedians in the country by Time magazine. Cambridge and Teer, now on very different career paths (though both very committed to Civil Rights) divorced in 1965. Teer went on to found the National Black Theatre in 1968.

Meanwhile Cambridge was becoming a movie star. He’s second billed in The President’s Analyst (1967), which starred James Coburn. And he’s the star of Melvin Van Peebles’ outrageous 1970 comedy Watermelon Man, in which he plays a white bigot who wakes up one morning to find he is black. That same year, he also starred in Ossie Davis’s Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970). He later reprised his role as Gravedigger Jones in its 1972 sequel Come Back Charleston Blue.  He starred in a famous 1971 Night Gallery episode called “Make Me Laugh”, directed by a young Steven Spielberg on one of his first assignments. Other films included The Biscuit Eaters (1972), Beware! The Blob (1972), Whiffs (1975), and Friday Foster (1975). His last completed film was the 1977 posthumously released made-for tv bio-pic Scott Joplin, starring Bill Dee Williams. 

Only 43, Cambridge died of a massive heart attack while preparing to play Idi Amin in the tv movie Victory at Entebbe. He had struggled with weight problems over the years, rapidly gaining and losing pounds, and this was thought to contribute to his death at such an early age. The loss was great. Imagine what he might have gone on to do with a few more decades at his disposal?

 

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