Today we will visit Godfrey Cambridge.
Source: Gale Biography in Context
Picture Credit: Reenied
Godfrey MacArthur Cambridge, (Feb. 26, 1933 – Nov. 29, 1976), actor and comedian, was born in the Harlem section of New York City, the son of Sarah and Alexander Cambridge, who had emigrated from British Guiana to Sydney, Nova Scotia, before arriving in New York. His father worked at blue-collar jobs, despite his skill as a bookkeeper; his mother worked in the garment district, although she was a skilled stenographer and had been a teacher in Guiana. His parents sent Cambridge to live with his grandparents in Sydney, Nova Scotia, so that he could attend school there. His grandfather was a coal miner and also operated a small grocery store. Cambridge’s grandparents were strong disciplinarians who were not averse to corporal punishment.
Cambridge rejoined his parents when he was thirteen years old and entered high school in the Queens neighborhood of Flushing, where he was popular and active in extracurricular activities. A superior student, he graduated in three years and was awarded a scholarship to Hofstra College (now Hofstra University) in Hempstead, N.Y. He entered Hofstra in 1951 intending to pursue premedical studies with a major in psychology. Early on, however, he became interested in acting and switched his major to English. (As a child he entertained his family and friends with his comic talents.) While at Hofstra, he played one of the murderers in Macbeth in his first onstage experience. He left Hofstra in 1953 when his grief over his father’s death, overwork, and a renewed awareness of his “blackness,” when taunted by members of a new fraternity on campus, made studying difficult. Of this incident he later said, “I couldn’t concentrate any more. All my life I ignored being colored. I never felt racial prejudice because I was the only Negro…. It’s terrible for someone to reach the age of 21 and realize he’s Negro, to spend all that time leading a sheltered life.” In 1954 he enrolled as a drama major at City College (CCNY), but he left before he received his degree. Later in life he admitted that he did not “recommend dropping out to anyone.” Cambridge then considered joining the paratroopers but was classified 4F.
While working at various odd jobs, Cambridge acted in his free time in church groups and sought full-time work as an actor. His first professional acting part was as a bartender in the off-Broadway production Take a Giant Step (1956), and his first Broadway show was Nature’s Way. But acting jobs were scarce, and he was continually turned away by casting directors who told him, “We can’t use you because there’s no Negro part.” To which he would reply, “Use me and I’ll make it Negro.” Later in his career he played “male” rather than “Negro” roles, that is, an Irishman in The Trouble-maker (1964), a CIA agent in The President’s Analyst, a concert violinist in The Biggest Bundle, and a Jewish cab driver in Bye Bye Braverman.
His first major acting role was as a white woman in the off-Broadway production of Genet’s The Blacks (1961). Cambridge was a critical success and received an Obie Award. After that, he played the role of Uncle Gitlow in the Broadway production of Purlie Victorious, a part that playwright Ossie Davis wrote especially for him. For that performance he received an Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Award nomination in 1962. He repeated his role in the film version of this play, Gone Are the Days! (1963). Godfrey was part of an improvisational group, The Living Premise, and for six months in 1963 appeared in its satirical review. Before The Blacks, he had bit parts on Broadway in Detective Story and Lost in the Stars. One of his most successful roles was that of Pseudolus the slave in the road production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a role Zero Mostel had played on Broadway. In his last show he joined Molly Picon in How to Be a Jewish Mother (1967).
Among the films in which Cambridge performed were The Last Angry Man (1959), The President’s Analyst(1967), The Busy Body (1967), The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968), and Bye Bye Braverman (1968). The Night the Sun Came Out was the original title for his next film, released as Watermelon Man (1970), in which he appeared as a white man who finds himself suddenly with black skin. The title change caused Cambridge to break his friendship with the director Melvin Van Peebles, contending that too many violent things were happening to blacks for them to accept such a title. His last pictures were Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and its sequel, Come Back Charleston Blue (1972).
Cambridge also had considerable television exposure, appearing on such programs as “The U.S. Steel Hour,” “Naked City,” “Search for Tomorrow,” “Ellery Queen,” “I’ve Got a Secret,” and “Sergeant Bilko.” He attributed his acceptance as a television comedian to his three appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar in 1964. The following year he received an Emmy Award for his role in “Beyond the Blues,” the premier episode of the experimental CBS series “Stage II.” In 1968 he signed a ten-year contract with CBS-TV.
As a stand-up comedian, Cambridge wrote his own material and he performed in some of the best cafés and supper clubs in the country. His routines were funny, but he was no proselytizer; he maintained that “I don’t do a racial act. I do a funny act.” His comedy routines were recorded on the Epic label: Them Cotton Pickin’ Days Is Over, Godfrey Cambridge Toys with the World, The Godfrey Cambridge Show and his first, Ready or Not, Here’s Godfrey Cambridge (1964), which became one of the top five best-selling albums at the time of its release.
His philosophical orientation may be inferred from these quotations: “I’ve got a responsibility not only to myself but to those 20 million black folks out there,” and “I’m interested in black kids having heroes. I’ve given up being ashamed of Africa, ashamed of who I was, ashamed of that hair pomade because I didn’t have any heroes.” Shunning violence, Cambridge almost continually found himself fighting the little man’s battles, jousting with taxi drivers who refused to pick up blacks; with real estate people who not only overcharged blacks but defrauded them; and with other low-level bureaucrats.
A voracious eater, Cambridge fought the problem of obesity throughout his adult life. He was five feet, ten and a half inches tall, and his weight fluctuated between a high of 370 pounds and a low of 180 pounds. Of one instance of weight loss, he said, “I’ve lost 12 Twiggies”– the reference is to slim British actress Twiggy.
Cambridge sought peace of mind in reading; he maintained that “You can’t be a public person 24 hours a day.” He enjoyed the classics, but his serious reading also included speeches of Malcolm X and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968), this last considered by him to be “the most definitive book written on the racial question in many a year.” Cambridge, a social person at heart, numbered among his friends James Earl Jones, Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, Robert Culp, Bill Cosby, and Sidney Poitier. “God” was Poitier’s nickname for Cambridge. His friend Sammy Davis, Jr., was responsible for his intense interest in photography.
Louie Robinson, writing in Ebony in 1967, estimated that Cambridge was earning a quarter of a million dollars per year. Earnings were augmented by income from his record royalties, his business interests in several singers, his investment in Royal Crown sodas, his writing (he wrote for Monocle, a British publication; his book Put-Downs and Put-Ons was published in 1967), and his board game, 50 Easy Steps to the White House. Nevertheless, he lived relatively frugally. While married to actress Barbara Ann Teer (1962-1965), he lived in a middle-income housing development in New York City. After a divorce that left him bitter, he moved to a four-and-a half room West End Avenue apartment in Manhattan. In 1974 he moved to an expensive home in Ridgefield, Conn.
Cambridge died of a heart attack on the Warner Brothers set of Victory at Entebbe (1976), while playing the role of Uganda’s president, Idi Amin. A funeral service was held on Dec. 1, 1976, at the Hollywood Church of the Hills and Cambridge was interred in Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Thanks for your attention.