Stu Gilliam: From the Chitlin’ Circuit to Czechia

Gilliam with Dick Clark on “American Bandstand” in 1975

Before Willie Tyler and Lester, ventriloquism-loving black audiences had another such act they could appreciate, Stu Gilliam (1933-2013) and his partner Oscar. But you had to be there — after years of working the chitlin’ circuit as a vent, Gilliam dropped the wooden partner when he began to mainstream in the late ’60s, leaving the way clear for Tyler. It worked out well for both of them.

Originally from Detroit, Gilliam was only about 15 when he began performing with circuses and carnivals with his vent act, and kept it up in the army during his Korean War service. Audiences were still mostly segregated in the ’50s and ’60s, so Gilliam played mostly black only nightclubs, but he scaled the heights there, getting all the way to the Apollo.

Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs were the first integrated venues he performed at, a connection he maintained later on television, when he played the Playboy After Dark show. By the time he began getting spots on major TV variety shows he had dropped the vent routine and was strictly doing stand up. In the late ’60s and early ’70s you could see him on the shows of Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, George Jessel, Jonathan Winters, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, etc. He was a regular on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in for the 1969-70 season. Gilliam also benefitted from several high profile TV acting gigs early in his career. In 1968 he guest starred in a memorable Get Smart episode where he was partnered with star Don Adams in a parody of the Robert Culp-Bill Cosby relationship on I Spy. He played himself on an episode of Julia, and did two episodes of Love American Style.

The ’70s were without a doubt Gilliam’s best decade. High spots included providing the voice of Curly Neal in the animated Harlem Globetrotters cartoon and its spinoffs; starring in the World War II sitcom Roll-Out (1973-74), and creating the role of the Scarecrow in the original Broadway production of The Wiz (1975), although he was replaced by Hinton Battle prior to opening. After this he guested multiple times on What’s Happening!, and had a regular role on Bernie Casey’s short-lived sitcom Harris and Company (1979). He also supported Casey in the films Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (1976) and Brothers (1977). Gilliam could be also be seen in smaller roles such films as The Mack (1973), Farewell My Lovely (1975), No Deposit No Return (1976), Return from Wicth Mountain (1978), The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979), The Devil and Max Devlin (1981), and Off the Wall (1983).

Gilliam’s screen career slowed down appreciably in the ’80s, although you could still see him on such things as Murder She Wrote and its spin-off The Law and Harry McGraw. His last two credits were bit parts in films: Mel BrooksLife Stinks (1991) and Robert Townsend’s Meteor Man (1993). He seems to have chosen the nice round age of 60 to retire, from screen acting at least. At some point he appears to have converted to the Baha’i Faith. He married (at the age of 74!) in 2007 and moved to the Czech Republic, where he spent his final years.

For more on show biz history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous