Today, an overdue look at African American stage and screen star Rex Ingram (1895-1969).
Ingram grew up in Cairo, Illinois, the son of a worker on the riverboat Robert E. Lee. He was the first person of color to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Northwestern University; he earned a medical degree and was a licensed physician. In this, there is a certain parallel with Paul Robeson, also an academic achiever who had a law degree from Columbia. Ingram, though not as well remembered today, came along earlier.
Just prior to earning his degree, Ingram got his first acting credits: he was an extra in the movies Tarzan with Elmo Lincoln, and Salome with Theda Bara, both in 1918. These early credits were a matter of good luck. He was a strikingly handsome man and a casting director had spotted him on the street. He later took extra roles in The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), and The Four Feathers (1929). Today, film buffs and scholars are apt to initially mix him up with another Rex Ingram, director of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) with Rudolph Valentino. Interestingly, THAT Rex Ingram was from Ireland and had changed his name in 1914; his given moniker was Reginald Ingram Montgomery Hitchcock. Just a weird coincidence.
It was in the 1930s that Ingram’s career as an actor truly got going. He had a small role in The Emperor Jones (1933) with Paul Robeson. Then in 1934, several parts on Broadway, in the plays Theodora the Quean, Stevedore, and Dance with Your Gods, and the Oscar Micheaux film Harlem After Midnight. He returned to Broadway in 1935 for Stick-in-the-Mud (1935) with Thomas Mitchell and Jose Ferrer. In 1936, he was cast as De Lawd and several other roles in the film version of the all-black The Green Pastures, the first of several benchmarks in his career. He then returned to Broadway for Marching Song (1937), How Come Lawd? (1937), Haiti (1938), and Sing Out the News (1939). During these years (1936-39) he was married to his first wife, Francine Everett.
In 1939 he was cast in the co-starring role of Jim in MGM’s production of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn opposite Mickey Rooney. Then he played the Djinn (Genie) in the 1940 remake of The Thief of Bagdad with Conrad Veidt and Sabu. Then yet another benchmark — he played Lucifer in the original 1940 Broadway production of Cabin in the Sky (1940), later reprising the role in the 1943 Hollywood adaptation. From 1941 through 1947 he did voice work in several animated shorts directed by George Pal (often playing a character named “Jasper”), and had supporting roles in the films George Stevens’ Talk of the Town (1942) with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, Sahara (1943), Fired Wife (1943), Dark Waters (1944), and A Thousand and One Nights (1945), returning to Broadway for roles in St. Louis Woman and Lysistrata, in 1946. A part in the 1948 film Moonrise ended the first leg of his career.
In 1948, Ingram pled guilty to a violation of the Mann Act (transporting an underage female across state lines for immoral purposes) and served ten months in jail, an immense personal and professional setback. He invested in a nightclub during his years of exile, and then slowly began to make his back into being castable.
The second leg of Ingram’s career started as the first part had — as an extra in a Tarzan movie. You can see him as a Sukulu chieftain in Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle (1955). In 1956 he played Pozzo in an all-black Broadway version of Waiting for Godot directed by Herbert Berghof and also featuring Geoffrey Holder, Earle Hyman, and Mantan Moreland. He thereafter worked steadily in films and television for the next decade and a half. You can see him in supporting roles in the films God’s Little Acre (1958), Watusi (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960), Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964), Hurry Sundown (1967), and Journey to Shiloh (1968), among others, and in guest shots on shows like The Rifleman, I Spy, Daktari, and Gunsmoke. He returned to Broadway one last time to take part in the musical Kwamina (1961), directed by Bobby Lewis and choreographed by Agnes de Mille. His last screen role was in a holiday episode of The Bill Cosby Show (1969). He died of a heart attack soon after that.
For more on show biz, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on early film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.