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Sat, 05.27.1916

Willie Best, Actor born

Willie Best

*Willie Best was born on this date in 1916.  sometimes known as Sleep n' Eat, he was a Black television and film actor.

A native of Sunflower, Mississippi, William "Willie" Best came to Hollywood, California as a chauffeur for a vacationing white couple. He decided to stay in the region and began his performing career with a traveling show in southern California.

He was regularly employed as a character actor in Hollywood films after a talent scout discovered him on stage. Best was one of the first Black film actors and comedians to cross over in popularity to white audiences. In the 21st century, his work, like that of Step n Fetchit, is sometimes reviled because he was often called upon to play stereotypically lazy, illiterate, and/or simple-minded characters in films. Of the 124 films he appeared in, he received screen credit in at least 77 as a Black bit player.  

Best appeared in films of the 1930s and 1940s.   His first films as a bit player were (Harold Lloyd's Feet First) and Up Pops the Devil (1931), The Monster Walks (1932), Kentucky Kernels and West of the Pecos (both 1934), and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935). He thereafter usually received credit as "Willie Best" or "William Best".  

As a supporting actor, Best, like many Black actors of his era, was regularly cast in domestic worker or service-oriented roles (though a few times he played the role echoing his previous occupation as a private chauffeur). He was often seen making a brief comic turn as a hotel, airline, or train porter, an elevator operator, custodian, butler, valet, waiter, deliveryman, and at least once as a launch pilot (in the 1939 movie Mr. Moto in Danger Island).  

In more than 80 of his movies, he was given a proper character name (as opposed to simple descriptions such as "room service waiter" or "shoe-shine boy"), beginning with his second film.  Best played "Chattanooga Brown" in two Charlie Chan films, The Red Dragon in 1945 and Dangerous Money in 1946. He also played the character of "Hipp" in three of RKO’s six Scattergood Baines films with Guy Kibbee: Scattergood Baines (1941), Scattergood Survives a Murder (1942), and Cinderella Swings It in 1943.  

After a drug arrest ended his film career, he worked in television. He became known to early TV audiences as Charlie, the elevator operator on CBS's My Little Margie, from 1953 to 1955. He also played Willie, the house servant/handyman and close friend of the title character of ABC’s The Trouble with Father, for its entire run from 1950 to 1955. He also played Billy Slocum in the syndicated drama Waterfront (1954).

William “Willie” Best died on February 27, 1962, at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, of cancer at age 45. He was buried (by the Motion Picture Fund) on March 5, 1962, at Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery.  His "Sleep n' Eat" nickname surfaced again in the 2000 motion picture satire Bamboozled, directed by Spike Lee. In the film, a "twenty-first-century minstrel show" is televised starring two African American performers, one of whom (portrayed by Tommy Davidson) plays a character named "Sleep n' Eat". In reference to one of Best's most respected contemporaries, his on-stage counterpart was named "Mantan" Moreland. 

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