The Stuntmen Who Blacklisted Blackface

Bill Cosby was outraged about working with white stunt doubles who were “painted down.” Half a century and many bumps and bruises later, a veteran crew of black stuntmen have flipped and flown their way into the annals of Hollywood.

The Stuntmen Who Blacklisted Blackface

The “no” that started the movement was uttered one day in 1965 on the set of the television drama, “I Spy.”

On the show, Bill Cosby played a secret agent. Never before had a black man held a leading role on an American television drama. Casting Cosby was viewed as revolutionary — and controversial.

But another revolution began the day Cosby came face-to-face with his stunt double — a white man who had been painted black. They not only painted the man, they used a hue of makeup that didn’t even come close to Cosby’s brown skin color, as Cosby recalled to an audience at the 2008 Black Stuntmen’s Association reunion at Fitzgeralds Hotel in Las Vegas.

The makeup was black. “I mean pure D. black, ” Cosby told the audience, evoking laughter. It was so black the man’s lips looked bright red. Then they put a wig on his head and started to cut the wig, to approximate Cosby’s afro.

In a conversation with director Sheldon Leonard, Cosby learned that the stuntman had been paid $750 to perform a car stunt — big money in the 1960s.

“I said, ‘I know some cats in the projects that would do that for seventy dollars,’” Cosby recalled as the audience laughed. “I said ‘don’t ever again, please, please, take a white man and put him in my position. You can find somebody. If I hadn’t gotten into comedy you could’ve found me for $750.”

Willie Harris, president of the Black Stuntmen’s Association, will never forget what Cosby said on set fifty years ago: “No white guy is going to double me painted down.”

“And that’s how they found Calvin Brown,” Harris says, referring to the nation’s first recognized black stuntman. “We all followed Calvin Brown.”

Harris spent about eight years as a Hollywood stuntman, until a barroom brawl scene in the film “Top of the Heap” ended his career. “I got kicked in the back,” he says. “Busted my fourth and fifth vertebrae. Busted my right knee.”

A young Willie Harris appears as a stuntman in “Top of the Heap.”

Harris is hard to miss in the real world. Standing six-feet-eight-inches, he has the kind of big-man presence that makes people do a “who-is-that?” double take. But on screen, stuntmen are among Hollywood’s most invisible people. We watch them jump from tall buildings, tumble down flights of stairs and get blown up on screen. And we, moviegoers, have no idea who they are. Their history has been largely invisible too.

But Harris has a plan. If he has his way, you will certainly know the hidden history that made it possible for black stuntmen and stuntwomen to work. Harris has lived that history. His body still bears the marks of his former profession.

Harris hadn’t come to Southern California to make a name for himself in Hollywood. In 1968, after a stint in the U.S. Air Force, and after a dream of playing in the NBA faded away, he just needed a job, any job, to feed his family. He settled in Compton. Hollywood was twenty miles away — and much further away in his mind.

A friend of his knew Calvin Brown well. She knew he had broken into the world of stunt work and that the pay was lucrative. The friend suggested that Harris talk to Calvin Brown. One day when Harris was at her house she called Brown and he stopped by.

Brown talked to Harris about becoming a stuntman, and about another stuntman named Eddie Smith, who held group meeting at Athens Park in Los Angeles. Every week a group of men would get together, drag out some old mattresses and learn how to do stunts.

“I didn’t know nothing about Hollywood,” Harris said. Or stunts. But soon he was one of them, learning how to do high falls, fight scenes, and driving for speed scenes. Through Smith, who had connections in Hollywood, guys in the group began working as extras earning $35 or $40 a day. Membership in the Screen Actors Guild meant better-paying assignments — and the opportunity to accept stunt work if they were hired — but SAG membership was expensive.

One night, Harris got lost trying to give a friend a lift from Compton to Hollywood and needed directions.

“I saw all of these lights and things and I said ‘I’m going to stop,’” he recalls. It turned out the lights were part of the set of the movie “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.”

“So, I’m standing there and this white guy walks up to me and starts talking,” Harris recalls. He asked if Harris played basketball. Harris explained he did not. “He said, ‘What do you do?’ I said ‘I can do pretty much anything. You got a job for me’?”

The man introduced himself. He was the actor Elliott Gould. Harris had no idea back then who Gould was, but the two had a good conversation and Gould offered to help Harris get into SAG. Back then membership required a letter from a director. Gould enlisted the help of Robert Altman, who wrote on Harris’s behalf. But another problem arose when he went to sign up for SAG membership.

“They wanted $236; well, I didn’t have thirty-six cents,” Harris says. But Gould did, and he gave Harris the money. Today Harris still doesn’t know why Gould, who he is still in touch with, was so kind to him. “Best luck of my life,” says Harris.

After winning three Emmy Awards for “I Spy,” Cosby moved on to “The Bill Cosby Show,” where he played Chet Kincaid, a physical education teacher at a high school in Los Angeles. In one episode of the show Mr. Kincaid steps into the boxing ring with a formidable opponent. Casting agents picked Harris to box with him. It was his first job.

“I didn’t know how to box,” Harris recalls. “You talk about scared? I never took boxing lessons in my whole life. I said, ‘Lord, don’t let me hit the man.’ But I guess I did something right.”

Harris went on to work on shows like “McMillan & Wife,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and in films such as “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs” and “The Elevator.”

“Racism was rampant in Hollywood,” says Harris, who was born in the South. “Hollywood was just as bad as Mississippi,” he says, minus the hoods and the cross burnings.

The film industry marginalized and minimized the lives of African-Americans — onscreen and off. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel, an African-American actress, played the role of Mammy, a maid in the classic film “Gone with the Wind.” McDaniel faced criticism for accepting roles that some considered demeaning. “I’d rather play a maid than be one,” McDaniel answered her critics.

McDaniel won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy, but on Oscar night in Los Angeles, she and her date were directed to seats in the back of the Coconut Grove, far from the other cast members — segregated.

Two decades later, the challenges Harris and his colleagues faced were not new, but they were less publicized, and remain largely unknown.

Sitting at a restaurant in Inglewood, California, Harris reflects on this journey along with Alex Brown, a founding secretary of the Black Stuntmen’s Association. For the pair, who have known each other more than forty years, this is more than Hollywood history. Today, Harris walks with difficulty. But his smile is as big as his presence. He and Brown are like two former athletes, reminiscing about their days on the court or on the field.They both look like they still have some playing days left in them.

“It’s fortunate we’re able to still give some enlightening facts” about the history of black stuntmen, Alex Brown says.

Cosby opened the door; Calvin Brown walked through. Then others, including firebrand Eddie Smith, who first held the meetings for the others to practice stunts, held it open for others.

Alex Brown, founding secretary of the Black Stuntmen's Association. (Photo by Andrew Herrold)
Alex Brown, founding secretary of the Black Stuntmen’s Association. (Photo by Andrew Herrold)

Smith knew Hollywood. He’d started working as a film extra in 1955. He also worked as a freelance TV news cameraman. The way Smith saw it, the paint-down was not just insulting, but it also took jobs from black men and women. Stunt work paid well, and the hard part was getting the work. Smith wanted a more direct pipeline for African-Americans.

Even after members like him had been trained to do stunts and founded the Black Stuntmen’s Association, they still had to fight for the work. Hollywood was slow to change.

The organization waged a campaign. They demonstrated at commercial shoots where no black people worked. They threatened protests. Once, when a Japanese carmaker’s Los Angeles office refused to hire African-Americans for a motorcycle commercial, Harris wrote to the hometown newspaper of a Japanese official. He also filed a discrimination lawsuit.

Some in Hollywood resented the the Black Stuntmen’s Association for upsetting Hollywood’s ecosystem. They faced verbal threats of physical harm. They were called names, shut out of jobs, ostracized. But in between the battles and the backlash, black stuntmen kept paving the way toward landing more gigs in films, television shows and commercials.

Smith had connections in Central Casting and he used them to benefit black stuntmen. Over the years he worked as a stuntman or stunt coordinator on “MASH,” “Dirty Harry,” “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Live and Let Die,” “Scarface” and the TV miniseries “Roots.” In every instance, he pushed for inclusion of African-Americans.

Eventually, at the prompting of black stuntmen, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took up the cause, filing a successful lawsuit against studios for discrimination. Times were changing. The paint-down was going the way of black-faced minstrel shows. Soon it would become a relic of Hollywood’s bad old days.

Stuntmen and stuntwomen watch movies differently than the rest of us. They see each other when the rest of us don’t.

Remember that scene in the movie “Speed” when Sandra Bullock drives an airborne speeding bus as it jumps over the downed section of a freeway to the other side? That jump was performed by Jophery C. Brown, who passed away this year. On other films he worked as Morgan Freeman’s double.

Remember the scene in “The Color Purple” when Harpo falls through the roof at a juke joint? That wasn’t the actor who played Harpo, Willard E. Pugh. That was Alex Brown who fell through the roof. Alex Brown even taught Oprah Winfrey, who played Ms. Sofia, how to safely throw a fake punch.

Henry Kingi. Ernie Robinson. Bob Minor. Tony Brubaker. Greg Elam. Evelyn Cuffee…Harris and Brown make a point of naming names of the black stuntmen and women we don’t know. They give each other recognition even when others don’t acknowledge them, their history, or their sacrifices.

“Being a stuntman is very fleeting,” Alex Brown says. “Very few of us get out without broken bones.”

Those early stuntmen and stuntwomen know these stories, but their numbers are decreasing. That’s why they believe that telling their story is so important.

Alex Brown and Henry Kingi show off the NAACP Image Award given to the Black Stuntmen's Association. (Photo by Andrew Herrold)
Alex Brown and Henry Kingi show off the NAACP Image Award given to the Black Stuntmen’s Association. (Photo by Andrew Herrold)

Harris is adamant that he wants recognition, and in the last few years the Black Stuntmen’s Association has received more. In 2012, the NAACP Image Awards honored the organization, and it will soon be featured in an exhibit in the Smithsonian. Two documentaries are in production about black stuntmen. Harris had a chance to meet First Lady Michelle Obama and tell her about their work. Harris wants the black stuntmen to be photographed with the president while he is still in office.

In 2015, the stuntmen are scheduled to be honored at the Mississippi state capital. “Growing up in Mississippi, I wasn’t even allowed on the capitol grounds,” Harris says. Such honors are a measure of how much things have changed, as well as a confirmation of the black stuntmen’s role in bringing about that progress.

“We opened the door for what you see today,” Harris says, of Hollywood’s African-American powerbrokers, stars like Samuel Jackson, Denzel Washington, Spike Lee and Tyler Perry.

“If it wasn’t for us, they wouldn’t have gotten that start,” says Harris. “When you change history somebody pays a price. We paid a high price for it. But it had to be done.”

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Andrew Herrold is a traveler, a photographer, a motorcycle lover and a gentleman caught in one click of the shutter. Living in Los Angeles, he thrives on the unknown and documenting every frame.