Jester Hairston, 98, who appeared on radio and TV's "Amos 'n' Andy," but who was better known to younger fans as the wise old church member Rolly on the sitcom "Amen," died Jan. 18 in Los Angeles. The cause of death was not reported.
Mr. Hairston, the grandson of a slave, made inroads as a black character actor, appearing often as a domestic or, in several Tarzan movies, as a jungle native shouting lines like "Bwana, bwana!"
Although those roles, and his work on "Amos 'n' Andy," would be harshly criticized in later years as perpetuating racial stereotypes, he made no apologies, saying he took what work he could get and helped pave the way for younger black actors to find better jobs later.
"Amen," with a predominantly black cast, was credited with being the first hit television sitcom based on religion when it made its debut on TV in 1986. It aired until 1991, with Mr. Hairston as the wise-cracking Rolly Forbes.
In the entertainment industry, Mr. Hairston may have been best known as a choral music director. He composed or arranged more than 300 spirituals used in such films as "Red River" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." His best-known music was his arrangement of "Amen," which he dubbed for Sidney Poitier in the 1963 film "Lilies of the Field."
Mr. Hairston continued to conduct choirs in his nineties, crisscrossing the world as a goodwill ambassador for the State Department, teaching spirituals in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe.
He was born in Belews Creek, N.C., and grew up in Pittsburgh, where several generations of his family worked in steel mills. He escaped the mills through a scholarship from his Baptist church and enrolled in landscape design at Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts).
He dropped out for several years when his money ran out, returning to school when he met a woman who was so impressed with his singing that she offered to finance his education in music. He wound up at Tufts University, graduating in 1929.
Making his way to New York, he met Hall Johnson, a popular conductor of Negro spirituals whose choir was the most prominent black singing group of the 1930s. Mr. Hairston became his assistant.
He went to California with the choir in 1935 and got his big break when the Russian-born conductor and composer Dmitri Tiomkin asked him to conduct the choir in the 1936 film "Lost Horizon," which won an Oscar for best score. That began a 20-year association with Tiomkin, who inspired him to form the first integrated choir used in films, including "Red River," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and "Land of the Pharaohs."
When Mr. Hairston wasn't arranging music, he had to find other work. He won small parts in movies, playing African natives in Tarzan films and butlers in others.
His later film credits include "To Kill a Mockingbird," "In the Heat of the Night," "Lady Sings the Blues" and "Being John Malkovich."
To get radio work, Hairston said, he "had to lose my Boston accent and learn to say 'Yassuh.' "
His Bostonian inflections came in handy when he was cast as Henry Van Porter, "the society man from black society" who ridiculed the shenanigans of Amos and Andy. He also played the less polished Leroy, Kingfish's brother-in-law.