D’Urville Martin: Directed Dolemite

Another post in celebration of Black History Month.

Actor and director D’Urville Martin (1939-1984) was born on February 11.  Born and raised in Harlem, Martin began his movie career as a bit player in the ground-breaking Civil Rights films Black Like Me (1964) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) and in guest shots on television shows like Daniel Boone, The Monkees, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Cimarron Strip. In 1968, his fortunes began to rise on several fronts: he had a small role in the blockbuster hit Rosemary’s Baby; was fourth-billed in A Time to Sing with Hank Williams Jr, Shelley Fabares, and Ed Begley; and most significantly he created the role of Lionel Jefferson in Justice for All, the first pilot for the show that would become All in the Family, a role that he would also play in the second pilot in 1970.

The 70s saw Martin’s career flourish in tandem with the blaxploitation genre, in which he was to be a key player. He appeared in the films Watermelon Man (1970), The Legend of N—er Charlie (1972), The Final Comedown (1972), Hammer (1972), Black Caesar (1973), Book of Numbers (1973), Five on the Black Hand Side (1973), Hell Up in Harlem (1973), The Get-Man (1974), Boss N—er (1975), Sheba Baby (1975),  Dolemite (1975, which he also directed), Death Journey (1976), Blind Rage (1976), and Black Samurai (1976). In 1977 he directed, co-produced and had a role in Disco 9000, which also featured old time show biz veterans like Harold Nicholas and Mathew “Stymie” Beard. Even a cursory reading of this list reveals that had pivotal roles in some of the principal classics of the genre, working with stars like Godfrey Cambridge, Fred Williamson, Billy Dee Williams, and Rudy Ray Moore. Further, he was with this phase of African American filmmaking from the beginning to the end. But even if he’d only directed the jaw-dropping, hilarious and fearless Dolemite and done none of the rest of it, he’d have earned a place in the genre’s history.

After this climax to several productive years he stepped away from the movie business for several years, returning to a very different climate in the films The Big Score (1983) with Williamson, and The Bear (1984), a bio-pic about football coach Bear Bryant. A heart attack took him that year at age 45. According to his obituary in Jet Magazine, at the time of his death he was artistic director of the Afro-American Total Theatre, a member of the Black Theater Alliance — this may have been his primary focus between the years 1977 and ’83.