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Key West, Florida
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Key West, Florida

Stepin Fetchit was the first African-American film actor in Hollywood to earn a million dollars. In an era when whites dominated the industry, he established his reputation. In addition, he was the first black actor to obtain a featured credit in a film, reflecting the harsh reality of the profession at the time. Fox Pictures initially signed him, then dropped him, and then re-signed him. Between 1927 and 1939, when contracts for black performers were unheard of, he appeared in almost 40 films. He was renowned for his wit and unusual playing style; oftentimes, specific plots were devised to make his character more prominent in films. As a “trickster,” he always took advantage of the whites’ sense of superiority by feigning stupidity and laziness. Over time, despite all of his success as an actor, he grew dissatisfied with the industry’s discrimination and the fact that he was paid less than his white peers. In the 1940s, he virtually stopped working out of frustration, making only intermittent cinema appearances to support himself.

Youth and Early Life

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry was born as Stepin Fetchit on May 30, 1902, in Key West, Florida to Joseph Perry, a cigar maker from Jamaica, and Dora Monroe, a seamstress from the Bahamas. In the 1890s, both of his parents were West Indian immigrants who had settled in the United States.

According to some stories, he was adopted at the age of eleven, when his family relocated to Tampa, Florida.
Perry’s mother desired for him to become a dentist; hence, he was adopted by a charlatan dentist who promised to train him.

However, he was forced to polish boots for his new guardian, and at the age of twelve, he fled in order to restart his life by working as entertainment in a carnival.

Stepin Fetchit’s Career

Perry began his career as a funny character actor, and by age twenty, he was the manager of a touring carnival performance. He used the stage moniker and fetch it’ after winning money betting on a racehorse with the same name. This is how Stepin Fetchit became his stage moniker.

In theater and in cinema, he frequently portrayed illiterate, dim-witted, and slothful characters. In reality, he was well-read and had a brief writing career for ‘The Chicago Defender’ in addition to being an actor.

In 1927, his stunning performance in the film ‘In Old Kentucky’ alongside actress Carolynne Snowden had a significant impact on the business. Their romantic relationship in the film was a novelty at the time (an African-American actor working with an all-white cast), and as a result, Stepin received a great deal of praise from the critics and signed a five-year contract with the studio.

His breakthrough in a predominantly white industry was first viewed as a positive development for black actors. In 1929, he starred in “Hearts in Dixie,” the first studio film to include a primarily black cast. In the same year, he also appeared in “Kid’s Clever,” “The Ghost Talk,” “Show Boat,” “Innocents of Paris,” and “Big Time.”

In the years 1934 and 1935, Stepin co-starred in the films Judge Priest,’ ‘David Harum,’ ‘Steamboat Round the Bend,’ and ‘The County Chairman’ alongside his comic actor colleague Will Rogers.

As a result of performing in nearly forty films between 1927 and 1939, he became the first African-American actor to earn a million dollars. After 1940, the racial prejudice and lower rate of pay for black actors in the industry upset him so much that he ceased working.

Even after entering a period of semi-retirement, he continued to live an extravagant lifestyle, and his careless spending caused him to return to work within five years. Stephen starred in eight further films between 1945 and 1953, including “Open the Door Richard,” “Swingtime Jamboree,” “Miracle in Harlem,” “Bend of the River,” and “The Sun Shines Bright.”

Later, he only acted in cameo appearances, including in a film about his then-friend Muhammad Ali, “the heavyweight boxing champion.”

Stepin’s Major Effort

“Hearts in Dixie” (1929), starring Stepin Fetchit, was a Hollywood landmark since it was one of the first major studio movies to have a largely African-American cast. The film promoted African-American music and dance and featured respectable characters.

Stepin Fetchit ‘s Controversy

Stepin Fetchit was accused of depicting black actors as victims and acting as stereotypical characters in films. He became embroiled in a dispute with civil rights activists for portraying the black community in the industry in a manner that, according to many, was not accurate.

In 1968, CBS aired the documentary Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed, whose writer, Andy Rooney, won an Emmy Award. This documentary, narrated by Bill Cosby, examined the portrayal of blacks in American films throughout the years.

Stepin was singled out and attacked for his role, prompting him to sue the filmmakers for character defamation. However, he was unsuccessful in his effort to restore his reputation as he lost the lawsuit.

Awards & Achievements

Stepin Fetchit has a star on the “Hollywood Walk of Fame” in the “Motion Pictures” category.
In 1976, the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP presented him with a Special NAACP Image Award.
He was elected into the “Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame” in 1978.

Stepin’s Personal Life

Stepin Fetchit was wed three times over his lifetime. His 1929 marriage to Dorothy Stevenson resulted in the birth of their son Jemajo the following year. In 1931, the marriage ended.
In 1937, he married his second wife, Winifred Johnson, and the following year, he had his second son, Donald. The couple divorced shortly thereafter, and he married Bernice Sims in 1951, making her his third marriage.

In 1969, his second son Donald passed away under strange circumstances. It was said that he went on a shooting spree near Pennsylvania Turnpike, hurting sixteen and murdering four, including his wife, using an M1 Carbine and a.30 caliber Marlin carbine before committing suicide.

Stepin believes that his son was framed because he was gaining prominence in the “black power movement.” However, his death was deemed a murder-suicide because no evidence was produced to support the family’s beliefs.

With all of the money he earned as an actor, Stepin Fetchit had a luxury lifestyle. At the peak of his success, he owned a collection of twelve automobiles and employed sixteen Chinese staff. His extravagant lifestyle includes extravagant parties. In 1947, he fell bankrupt as a result of irresponsibly wasting his riches.

On November 19, 1985, he died of pneumonia and heart failure at the age of 83. His remains were interred at the Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles.

Estimated Net Worth

Stepin Fetchit was an American comedian and actor who, after adjusting for inflation, had a net worth of $10 million at the time of his death. Born in Key West, Florida in May 1902, Stepin Fetchit passed away in November 1985. He was labeled as the “World’s Laziest Man.”


This actor’s professional name, Stepin Fetchit, was derived from a thoroughbred racehorse.
In 1976, he suffered a severe stroke that ultimately ruined his acting career.

He was a close friend of the legendary heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali.
He was the first black actor to become a billionaire and to receive a studio contract.
In 1978, the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame inducted this actor.