Not many actors have their portraits on the walls of a museum, so imagine my surprise when I came upon someone with that honor — Leigh Whipper. Painted by the esteemed African American artist Lois Mailou Jones, I had no idea who Leigh Whipper was, staring at his image hanging in the Brooklyn Museum. Curious, I discovered that among his many credits were his being the first African American to join Actors’ Equity in 1920 (“Equity didn’t even know I was Black”). He was also a co-founder (with composer Noble Sissle) of the Negro Actors Guild of America. He appeared on Broadway in such landmark dramas as Dorothy and DuBose Heyward’s Porgy (1927), the play upon which the musical Porgy and Bess was based, and John Steinbeck’s adaptation of his novel Of Mice and Men (1937), directed by George S. Kaufman. In it, Whipper created the part of Crooks; a role he repeated for the 1939 film version. He was also an accomplished songwriter and music publisher whose career spanned sixty-five years. Whipper lived until just shy of his ninety-ninth birthday and, though blind as the result of an unsuccessful cataract operation six years prior, told a journalist shortly before he died, “I haven’t retired. If you give me a part, I’ll take it.”
Now THAT’S an actor!
To start at the beginning, Leigh Rollin Whipper was born in 1876, only eleven years past the end of the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Born in the Deep South of Charleston, South Carolina, his parents were both free and accomplished individuals. His father, William Whipper (1834–1907), was a trial lawyer, circuit court judge, Brigadier General, state legislator and abolitionist who, during Reconstruction, had a major part in creating South Carolina’s new state government. Leigh’s mother, Frances Rollin Whipper (1845–1901), also born to free Black parents (her father was a successful lumber merchant), was herself a political activist, teacher, and author. She would later attend Howard University to become one of the first Black women physicians in the United States. A single mom after divorcing her husband, Frances raised young Leigh and his sister Ionia in Washington, D.C., where after attending public school, both children went on to college; Ionia becoming a physician like her mother, while young Leigh went to Howard University and then its law school, from which he graduated in 1895. Though admitted to the State Bar of South Carolina, he never practiced as an attorney.
Perhaps his heart was never really in the law, considering Whipper told the Associated Press near the end of his life that “the first time I went to the theatre, I was six or seven years old, and I took a loving for acting. I went to see Uncle Tom’s Cabin and I’ll never forget it.”
Whipper didn’t have natural leading man qualities and at six feet tall and weighing 150 pounds, he once described himself as “a human toothpick.” Perhaps it was his musical talents that led to his first stage appearance as one of the Georgia Minstrels in a show of that title. Henever attended drama school (“I was too busy earning a living” he told the New York Times for his obituary) and, as that obit stated, “he learned by observing the techniques of Richard Mansfield, Edmund Kean, Julia Marlowe, Nat Goodwin, Edward H. Sothern and David Warfield” — the best of great classical theatre actors of a bygone century. So, one must assume Whipper was soaking in all he could from his seat in the audience. In a 1974 interview, Whipper recalled having once asked an actor about acting. “He said the success of acting was to try not to act; be natural. And that’s about the best lesson I’ve ever had.”
In 1920, he had his first film role as an Indian fakir in Oscar Micheaux’s silent film The Symbol of the Unconquered, and by age twenty-three, he was in a stock production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Philadelphia. His Broadway debut in 1925 came not as an actor, but as a director. Sadly, the musical titled Lucky Sambo folded in a week, putting its cast of forty-four out of work. But two years later came Porgy, a substantial hit in its day, running for 364 performances. Cast as the Crabman of Catfish Row, he sang the memorable “Crabman’s Song.” (“I’m talkin’ ‘bout debbil crabs, I’m talking ‘bout steam crabs”).
It was Whipper who came up with interpolating the tune into the play, a musical signature that made such an impression on George and Ira Gershwin that when they were writing Porgy and Bess, the song was retained (though Whipper was not). In addition, his contribution to Porgywent beyond just acting and singing. According to a story in Wallace Thurman’s treatise on the Harlem Renaissance, Whipper claimed to have taken Rouben Mamoulian, Porgy’s director, to Harlem to soak up some culture. “I had to tell him how to be colored. I carried him to one of these store front churches. And when he came out of the store front church he was sold. He had never seen anything like it in all his life and it was just what he wanted” (which makes his not being cast in the musical even odder since Mamoulian directed both the original drama and its musical version).
Whipper laid claim to seven additional Broadway credits over the next nine years, although most closed quickly. Better luck came his way in 1937 when Of Mice and Men came along, offering him not only a fine role, but steady employment (which had to have been welcomed, it being eight years into the Great Depression).
When in 1939, Whipper filmed Of Mice and Men in California, he remained in Hollywood, eventually appearing in twenty-one films between 1941 and 1949, though many were insubstantial parts. As a Black man, he was often relegated to playing janitors, butlers, or worse, “a Native,” as he is credited in a film titled Jungle Queen. There were exceptions though. In 1943’s Mission to Moscow, directed by Casablanca’sMichael Curtiz, Whipper’s portrayal of the Emperor Haile Selassie was considered important enough to merit the Ethiopian government to pay special honor by decorating him for the scene in which Selassie delivers a speech before the League of Nations. It was the role of which he was most proud.
Perhaps his finest screen performance came in a small, but effective role, in 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident. Director William Wellman’s grim and brilliant drama of a lynching, starred Henry Fonda and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture. Whipper makes a vital impression, albeit in an uncredited role as Sparks, the town’s handyman and unofficial preacher. Of his performance, film critic Michael Sragow writes “As Sparks recalls his brother’s lynching, Whipper’s haunted delivery cuts to the bone. After this latest lynching is done, Whipper drops to his knees. As the men scatter and leave him alone in the suddenly silent clearing, Sparks sings with personal urgency to each of the hanged men: ‘You got to go through Lonesome Valley/ You got to go there by yourself.’ The words hover over the men who ride off. There’s no better evidence of the value an alert director like Wellman and an instinctive talent like Whipper can add to an archetypal situation. They elevate the scene to a poetic lamentation.”
In the late 1940s-early 1950s, when actor-director José Ferrer was one of the most sought after talents on Broadway, he took a liking to Whipper and cast him in productions of Ben Johnson’s Volpone (1948) and Joseph Kramm’s The Shrike (1952), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This led to Ferrer hiring him for the movie version as well. Whipper’s Broadway and film credits end around the late 1950s, leading to the question of why in the early 1960s, when Black artists such as James Earl Jones, Cecily Tyson and Roscoe Lee Browne were shaking up the theatre world, Whipper took no part in the movement. Of course, it needs to be stated that by 1960, Whipper was eighty-four years old, and perhaps his will was stronger than the physical means by which performing eight times a week is necessary. As mentioned earlier, by 1969, he was blind.
As an entertainment pioneer, Leigh Whipper was honored in 1974 with a life membership to the Actors Equity Association. His work with the Negro Actors Guild, founded in 1937, aided Black actors in theatre and film, as well as fighting for more realistic depictions of African American life on screen. The organization also sought health care, transportation, and hotel accommodations, and financed funeral arrangements for those in the Black theatre community. Married for forty-two years to Lillian Miles, who predeceased him in 1946, Whipper was the father of three children, a grandchild, and three great-grandchildren, all of whom survived him. He died in Harlem Hospital on July 26, 1975, at the age of ninety-eight. An appropriate epitaph might have been what he once told a journalist: “I’ve been in every kind of show business except the circus and grand opera.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.