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*Cleavon Little was born on this date in 1939. He was a Black stage, film, and television actor.
Cleavon Jake Little was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, the son of Malachi Little and DeEtta Jones Little. He was the brother of singer DeEtta Little West; he had another sister, Rosemarie Little Martin, and two brothers, Everett and Roy. Little was raised in San Diego, California, and attended Kearny High School, graduating in 1957.
He graduated from San Diego State College in 1965 with a degree in speech therapy and appeared in A Raisin in the Sun in 1962 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. He worked through college as a janitor and gave Black poetry presentations to clubs and groups. He won a scholarship from the American Broadcasting Company to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City and was named the best actor in the class of 1967.
Little made his professional debut in February 1967, appearing off-Broadway at the Village Gate as the Muslim Witch in the original production of Barbara Garson's MacBird. The role of Foxtrot followed this in the original production of Bruce Jay Friedman's long-running play Scuba Duba which premiered in October 1967. While portraying Foxtrot at night, he portrayed Hamlet during the days at schools and parks on behalf of the New York Shakespeare Festival.
The following year, he made his first film appearance in a small uncredited role in What's So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968), and his first television appearance as a guest star on two episodes of Felony Squad. A series of small roles followed in films such as John and Mary (1969), and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970). Little made his Broadway debut in 1969 as Lee Haines in Jimmy Shine. In 1970, he returned to Broadway to portray the title role in Purlie, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical.
A year later, he was hired as an ensemble player on the syndicated TV variety weekly The David Frost Revue and in 1971, Little played in the car-chase movie Vanishing Point. The same year, he played in the pilot for The Waltons called "The Homecoming: A Christmas Story." He also played a burglar in the 1971 All in the Family episode. He then starred in the sitcom Temperatures Rising, which aired in three different iterations from 1972 to 1974, with Little's character of Dr. Jerry Noland as the only common element. In 1974, he starred in the television disaster film The Day the Earth Moved. Little made a minor appearance in a Six Million Dollar Man episode.
In 1974 he was cast as Sheriff Bart in the comedy western Blazing Saddles (1974) after the studio rejected Richard Pryor, who co-wrote the script. This role earned him a nomination for the BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles. In 1975, on Broadway, he played the role of Lewis in All Over Town under the direction of Dustin Hoffman. The following year, he appeared as Willy Stepp in the original production of The Poison Tree at the Ambassador Theatre.
Over the years, he made guest appearances on The Mod Squad, The Rookies, Police Story, The Rockford Files, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, ABC Afterschool Specials, The Fall Guy, MacGyver, and a special Christmas episode of ALF. Little played a supporting role to Pryor in the racing movie Greased Lightning. Little returned to the New York stage in 1981 in the off-Broadway production The Resurrection of Lady Lester, a "poetic mood song" by Oyama, playing the legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young. In 1985, he opened at Broadway's Booth Theatre as Midge in I'm Not Rappaport. In 1989 he appeared as a closeted gay man in Hirsch's sitcom Dear John for which Little won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.
In 1991, he was in the sitcom True Colors. The same year, he also had a supporting role on Bagdad Cafe, appearing in 12 episodes. Later that year, he was cast as a civil-rights lawyer in the docudrama, Separate but Equal. His marriage to Valerie Wiggins ended in divorce. His daughter is Adia Millett-Little. Little's last appearance as an actor was in a guest role on a 1992 television series Tales from the Crypt episode. Cleavon Little died of colon cancer at his home in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles on October 22, 1992.
For Little's contribution to motion pictures, he was posthumously honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994. The Cleavon Little Scholarship, which helps nonwhite students, was created at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts through a campaign led by Little's fellow alumnus and co-star Judd Hirsch.