Stepin Fetchit, the black comic actor who became a Hollywood star in the 1930s by playing lazy, slow-moving, easily frightened characters, died today of heart failure at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. He was 83.
Fetchit, born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, came to Hollywood in the late 1920s and made a fortune portraying shuffling, idle men who rolled their eyes in fright and ignorance at the complexities of the world.
The unsophisticated, subservient men he portrayed later were seen by some as an insult to other American blacks, but Fetchit was the first black actor to receive feature billing in movies not aimed specifically at black audiences. Fetchit argued that he opened doors for other blacks in the film business.
"I defied the law of white supremacy," he once 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."
As a youth, he toured the South with carnivals and minstrel shows, and it was during this period that he became known as Stepin Fetchit. He had won $30 on a race horse with that name, he wrote and performed a song about the animal, and the name stuck to him.
He worked in dozens of films in the 1930s, but the money he earned was quickly spent. In 1947, he declared banckruptcy and hit the road again, singing and telling jokes.
But all his attempts at a comeback were unsuccessful, and little was heard of him again until the mid-1960s when he surfaced in Chicago, hospitalized as a charity patient. He entered the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in 1977, a year after having a stroke.