Willie Best

(1913–1962) Actor

Born on 27 May 1913 in Sunflower, William Best was an African American actor in television and film. Lauded for his comedic talent, Best had minor roles in more than one hundred movies, including such notable films as Cabin in the Sky, Ghost Breakers, and High Sierra. Best received screen credit for many of his performances, an uncommon honor for an actor of his status. Bob Hope, who appeared with Best in Ghost Breakers, declared him “the best actor I know.”

Best purportedly traveled to Hollywood from Mississippi as a chauffeur and later signed a contract with RKO studios. He made his first on-screen appearance as Charcoal in Harold Lloyd’s 1930 film Feet First. Best was occasionally billed as Sleep ’n’ Eat in the early years of his career, and in 1940 the New York Times described him as “a slightly accelerated Stepin Fetchit.” Much like Fetchit, Best was typecast as a cringing, ignorant caricature of racist African American stereotypes, a fact that earned him opprobrium from civil rights activists. Though the film industry claimed that Best enjoyed playing these roles, in a 1934 interview, the actor said, “I often think about these roles I have to play. Most of them are pretty broad. Sometimes I tell the director and he cuts out the real bad parts.” Best continued, “But what’s an actor going to do? Either you do it or get out.”

In 2000 Spike Lee invoked Sleep ’n’ Eat in the movie Bamboozled, a minstrel satire criticizing contemporary representations of African Americans. Excerpts from Best’s work were also included in Melvin Van Peebles 1998 documentary Classified X, which lambasted historical portrayals of African Americans in cinema.

Although a 1951 arrest for possession of narcotics severed his relationship with the film industry, Best continued acting into the mid-1950s, landing regular roles on several of Hal Roach’s television series, including The Stu Erwin Show and My Little Margie. Best died of cancer in 1962 at the Motion Picture Home Hospital in Woodland Hills, California.

Further Reading

  • Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900–1942 (1977)
  • Bosley Crowther, New York Times (July 1940)
  • Hal Erickson, Internet Movie Database website, www.imdb.com

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Willie Best
  • Coverage 1913–1962
  • Author
  • Keywords Willie Best
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date February 29, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 13, 2018