Adolph Caesar: An Actor’s Story

Harlem-born Adolph Caesar 1933-1985 served five years in the U.S. Navy (as a Chief Petty Officer in the medical corps) before studying drama at NYU. Caesar’s greatest asset as an actor was his voice; a lot of his earlier work was voice-over narration for the trailers to films such as Blacula and Dawn of the Dead.

Caesar worked with regional theatres all over the country but his longest association, beginning in 1970, was with New York’s Negro Ensemble Company, where he acted in such plays as The River Niger, Square Root of the Soul, The Brownsville Raid, and — the turning point in his life — Charles Fuller’s A Soldier Play (1981), which was loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. The legendary cast also included Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. When Norman Jewison made a film version of it called A Soldier’s Story in 1984, Caesar reprised his role as a cruel, hate-filled army sergeant (which no doubt drew from his own military experience), though Washington and Jackson had moved on to other things (though as a consolation prize we do get David Alan Grier, Robert Townsend, and Patti LaBelle). I remember this movie well from the ’80s — it reminded me a lot of the work Robert Altman was doing at the time in adapting stage plays for the screen, one of which, Steamers (1983) had also featured Grier.

At any rate, Caesar was nominated for an Oscar for his work in A Soldier’s Story, and then went on to good roles in The Color Purple (1985), and Club Paradise (1986). He was working on Tough Guys (1986) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas when he was felled on set by a fatal heart attack and replaced in the cast by Eli Wallach. It’s a shame because he was experiencing a later career blossoming, yet was still young enough to conceivably extend it for another couple of decades. But it wasn’t in the cards.