Stepin Fetchit, 83, the black comedian who became a Hollywood star in the 1930s by playing lazy, slow-moving, timorous characters, died of congestive heart failure and pneumonia Nov. 19 at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif.
Mr. Fetchit, who made his screen debut in 1927 in "In Old Kentucky" and made and lost a fortune in the course of his career, was criticized in recent years for portraying characters who fit the racist stereotype held by some people of the simple, subservient black man.
The actor countered that he was the first black to receive feature billing in American movies not aimed specifically at black audiences, and added that the reaction to his roles was overdone.
"Just because Charlie Chaplin played a tramp doesn't make tramps out of all Englishmen, and because Dean Martin drinks, that doesn't make drunks out of all Italians," he said in a 1968 interview with The Los Angeles Times. "I was only playing a character and that character did a lot of good."
The actor once said of the successful black entertainers who followed him, "They make out like I hurt the Negro when I was using the only thing available to the Negro at the time. I was defying the unwritten law that a Negro had no civil rights and I was doing it in a way that wouldn't hurt anybody.
"I defied the law of white supremacy," he said. "I had to defy a law that said Negroes were supposed to be inferior . . . . I became the first Negro entertainer to become a millionaire. All the things that Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier have done wouldn't be possible if I hadn't broken that law. I set up the thrones for them to come and sit on."
He was incensed by the use of a film clip from one of his movies in a 1972 Bill Cosby show for CBS, "Black History: Lost, Stolen or Forgotten." He charged in an unsuccessful $3 million defamation suit against Cosby and the network that he had been represented as "the symbol of the white man's Negro, the traditional lazy, stupid, crapshooting, chicken-stealing idiot."
He complained that young blacks "are taught to ignore anything old-time . . . . It's the same as if the Jewish people would ignore Moses because he didn't bring them through the Red Sea in Rolls-Royces or Cadillacs. Young people are taught by phony leftists to only recognize the things they are doing today."
Mr. Fetchit -- he chose that name himself -- was born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry in Key West, Fla. He ran away from home at 14 and toured the South with plantation shows for black field hands, minstrel shows and carnivals, singing, dancing and telling jokes.
He said he got his first movie role because the producer was looking for a "slow Southern boy who didn't like work," similar to his vaudeville character. He was in the original film version of "Show Boat" in 1929, one of five films he made that year. He also appeared with Shirley Temple, Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor in "Stand Up and Cheer" in 1934.
His other film credits included "The Country Gentleman," "Miracle in Harlem," "Bend in the River," "The Galloping Ghost," and "The Sun Shines Bright." His final film appearances included "Amazing Grace" in 1974 and "Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood" in 1976.
Mr. Fetchit quit movies in 1937, complaining that he had too many imitators "just doing the outside of my act -- they don't work from the soul like I do." He said he would "give them a chance to get monotonous" before he returned.
His film earnings went quickly, forcing him to declare bankruptcy in 1947 and go on the road singing and telling jokes. Little was heard of him again until the mid-1960s when he was hospitalized in Chicago as a charity patient.
His survivors include a sister, Marie Carter of Los Angeles.