Game Changers: How Stepin Fetchit Became The First African-American Actor Millionaire


by Renata Johnson

The first African-American person to make it to millionaire status as an actor was Lincoln Theordore Perry, who was known as Stepin Fetchit. Although he was one of the first black faces on television, his appearance did not come without controversy within the African-American community. Perry began acting as a comedian in his early teen years. He often portrayed himself as a lazy, slow-witted, jive-talking person in mainstream “white” cinemas. A character which often offended many people in the Black community. Black Americans did not want White America to perceive all African-American people as being lazy. However, he is still proclaimed as the first black superstar by many that paved the way for other African-American actors and actresses. He appeared in more than 50 movies, some which he appeared with his good friend Will Rogers.

Perry was born in Key West, Florida, to West Indian immigrant parents. Despite his role on as the “Laziest Man in the World” Perry was highly intelligent. He wrote for the premier African-American newspaper, “The Chicago Defender.” Most African-American felt the name used by Perry was a blow in the face, Stepin Fetchit. They felt it was a contraction to “step and fetch it,” implying that he was an “Uncle Tom.” Regardless, of what people thought about him, or his name, he was the first African-American comedian on television and one to become a millionaire. He also held jobs as a vaudeville artist and a manager of a traveling carnival. He was far from being a lazy person. He just found a way to make money and he like many other people took advantage of the opportunity.

Although Perry was the first African-American millionaire his status did not last for long. He mishandled his money buy overspending and was considered bankrupt by 1947. He later went on to become friends with Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Perry showed Muhammad Ali a knockout punch that he later used in one of his fights. However, during this time Perry found himself being criticized for the roles he played with civil rights leaders. Even though there were mixed feelings about Perry, the NAACP awarded him with the NAACP Image Award. Years later Perry was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Perry also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located under the category motion pictures. Perry’s career ended after suffering a stroke in 1976. He died in 1985 at the age of 83.


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