The Life and Times of Cleavon Little
This month we are launching a new series titled “Star of the Month.” Every month we will highlight a different alum and celebrate the high marks of their career. Every Friday, on our social media pages, we will showcase a different film from their body of work.
This month we celebrate the work of one of our most cherished alumni, Cleavon Little.
Mr. Cleavon Little was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma in 1939. His family moved West, to San Diego during his high school years, he attended San Diego City College, and then San Diego State University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in dramatic arts. He received a full scholarship to Juilliard for his Graduate studies, where he studied classical theater, with an emphasis on Shakespeare. He continued his training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts where he graduated in 1967. Safe to say he was well trained in the art of performing.
Always feeling truly at home in the theater, Little performed in many stage productions while in New York, where he displayed a wide variety of credits, from Hamlet and A “Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Off-Broadway productions such as MacBird! and Scuba Duba; his first production with Judd Hirsch (Class of 1962). Little and Hirsch would go on to become life-long friends. They starred together in the hit play, “I’m Not Rappaport” in 1985. When Hirsch won
the Tony Award for his performance in “Rappaport” he invited Little onto the stage saying, “I really feel very lonely out here because you can’t do a play like this without the other guy, I’m going to have to insist Cleavon Little come out here….” Little would go on to win an Emmy Award for guest appearing on “Dear John” which stared Hirsch.
His first official Broadway opportunity came in 1968 with the musical “Jimmy Shine,” which also starred Dustin Hoffman. He would return to Broadway in 1970 to star in the musical, “Purlie;” a tale set in the Jim Crow-era American South. “Purlie,” a traveling preacher, returns to his hometown to save his community’s church and emancipate slaves from a plantation. It was this role that earned him not only the Drama Desk Award but also a Tony Award that year. The production also featured Novella Nelson, the esteemed New York actress and 1961 graduate of The Academy.
Cleavon kept his eye on television and film to expand his craft. During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a few film roles came his way which included “John and Mary” (starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow), “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (with famed comedian Redd Foxx), and a starring role in “Vanishing Point;” which saw moderate success and has garnered a cult following. The film is about a car delivery man who makes a bet that he can deliver his car in record time, this leads to many run-ins with police and other savory characters along the way. Little plays the disc jockey Super Soul, who encourages the main character to never slow down and continue his avoidance of the authorities. With all this, it wasn’t until 1972 when he landed the role of Dr. Jerry Nolan in the hospital-set sitcom, “Temperatures Rising,” that he
began securing a foothold in the industry. The experience was daunting, as this was his first recurring role in Television, and filming moved at a faster pace than he was used to, but it was the role that led him to star in one of the biggest comedies in film history.
“I found someone who was made for the role, born to play it,” recalls Hollywood legend Mel Brooks, “after he read one page of dialogue I grabbed him, embraced him, and said ‘Cleavon don’t ask for too much money and you’ve got the part!’” The part Brooks is talking about here is, of course, the famous Black Bart in “Blazing Saddles,” an American satirical black comedy set in the Wild West. A screening is set up at the Avco Embassy theater in LA. The theater lobby was filled with live cattle at the behest of Mel Brooks because - why not? The whole team is scared of how this monstrous film will be received. They all breathe a sigh of relief when the film is met with riotous laughter and thunderous applause. It was a hit! Of course, the head of Warner Bros. had a laundry list of things that must be taken out of the movie, a list that Brooks crumbled up and threw away. The film stayed intact and went on to garner critical and box office acclaim. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and earned Little a nomination for the BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles. To this day it remains his most remembered role.
Even though the role of Sheriff Bart brought him much deserved fame and notoriety, Little had a hard time securing another big lead that would equate to it. He had roles in lesser-known films like “Jimmy the Kid” and “Toy Soldiers;” and a slightly more visible role co-starring opposite Jim Carrey and Lauren Hutton in the comedy, Once Bitten. His numerous television appearances on shows like “The Mod Squad,” “Police Story,” “The Rockford Files,” “The Love Boat,” and “Fantasy Island” made him a TV staple throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s. He won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series in 1989 for his part in an episode of “Dear John” - a sitcom starring his old friend, Judd Hirsch.
Cleavon was able to find roles that touched on the black experience, highlighted the culture, and represented black Americans. He played a supporting role to Richard Pryor in the film, “Greased Lightning,” which was based on the true-life story of Wendell Scott, the first black stock car racer to win in America. On stage, he portrayed legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young in “The Resurrection of Lady Lester.” He played a black dentist in an interracial marriage on Fox’s sitcom, “True Colors,” and played a civil-rights lawyer on the docudrama, “Separate But Equal” alongside black acting icon, Sidney Poitier.
Cleavon had very strong feelings about the subject of casting and race. He felt that getting hired for a role shouldn’t just be based on the color of one’s skin, but based on the level of talent one possesses. In a backstage interview, while working on the play, “I’m Not Rappaport,” Cleavon was interviewed by Tom Cottle. When asked if black men and women are getting the roles they should on stage and screen, Cleavon had mixed feelings on the subject. “I feel that we have a real major problem in the industry. Totally.” He went on to praise shows like “Hill Street Blues,” which showcased a more diverse and inclusive cast that were having real-life experiences. “It is indicative of our whole society. We're not doing that with material today.” Cleavon then asked the question of himself, what is the problem? “It’s not the general public. [The] general public... it doesn't have that problem. The problem has to do with the producers and their own fears that this is not what the general public is gonna want to see. [The general] public wants to see a talent. They want to see someone talented.” He concluded the interview acknowledging the talents of Murphy, Cosby, and Pryor, but added that they are comedians first. They can act, but it is not the source of their art form, comedy is. “I'm talking about your James Earl Jones’ or your Moses Gunns or your Cicely Tysons, or your Roscoe Lee Brown…. I'm talking about your Lou Gossetts and your Cleavon Littles... I'm talking about a lot of fine actors who should be doing roles that don't just call for black, but calls for the best possible talent.”
October 22, 1992, brought the world sad news, the star of Broadway and television had succumbed to colon cancer at the age of 55. He left an indelible impression on many who knew him and the millions who only knew him through his work. Upon his death, Mel Brooks said “You know in this business producers and actors aren’t supposed to eat together. (But) I enjoyed Cleavon Little’s company so much, I insisted on having lunch with him every day. I’ll miss him very much.” His long-time compatriot and colleague, Judd Hirsch, said at the time “[h]e called me on Wednesday to say goodbye… and I said to him, ‘You have to get well so we can tour again.’ He was a wonderful actor and a classy man, and I so regret we couldn’t have another tour.”
Cleavon Little was an actor’s actor. His one and only true home was the stage. He loved the spontaneity of the stage and how each night was a different experience for him. It allowed him to showcase his ability to tell a story and captivate his audience. “I never knew what it was like to be happy until I came back to New York to do theater. Never knew the feeling. Stage is a whole ‘nother area for me because that's where I was born.” His legacy will live on forever in his vast stage credits and filmography.
“Where ya headed cowboy?” “Nowhere special.” “Nowhere special… I’ve always wanted to go there.”
Duke Daniel Pierce contributed to this piece.