Jester Hairston, more than an actor

Tue, 1901-07-09

Jester Hairston was born on this date in 1901. He was an African American choral composer and actor.

The grandson of slaves from the Hairston plantation at Belew's Creek, North Carolina, Jester Hairston often had to suffer the indignities of Hollywood racism. A cum laude graduate from Tufts Universit with a major in music, he also studied music at the famed Julliard School. He spent 13 years as assistant conductor of the Hall Johnson Negro Choir, where he often arranged and conducted choirs for Broadway.

He first came to Hollywood in 1936 to conduct the choir work and spent 15 years on radio and TV’s Amos 'n' Andy despite the fact that the other black characters were played by white actors. Hairston’s early acting roles included playing a “Witch Doctor” in the 1955 film, "Tarzan's Hidden Jungle." TV fans perhaps best recognize Hairston as “Rolly Forbes” on the 1986 series "Amen"; his presence in Hollywood was often hidden on the other side of the camera.

As one of the greatest choral music directors, Hairston composed or arranged more than 300 gospel spirituals in films such as "Green Pastures" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." One of the first black actors in the Screen Actors Guild, among his notable works was the song “Amen” from the Sidney Poitier film, "Lilies of the Field." Hairston died January 18, 2000, at the age of 98.

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Hairston, Jester