Rex Ingram

Active - 1918 - 1968  |   Born - Oct 20, 1895 in Cairo, IL  |   Died - Sep 19, 1969   |   Genres - Drama, Adventure, Romance, War, Western

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The African-American actor Rex Ingram -- not to be confused with the Irish-born director of the same name from the silent era -- was, for a time, the most prominent black dramatic performer in Hollywood and second only to Paul Robeson in recognition among all black actors. And like Robeson, Ingram also had a difficult time finding enough serious roles to keep himself employed and maintain a viable career. The son of a steamer fireman on the riverboat Robert E. Lee, Rex Ingram was literally born on the Mississippi River, somewhere between Natchez, MS, and Cairo, IL, where his mother resided. He spent a big part of his youth working with his father on riverboats until he entered Northwestern University and, later, medical school. After earning his degree, he took a trip to California for some rest; while standing on a street corner in L.A., he was spotted by a casting director and offered ten dollars per day to appear in a movie. He ended up playing an African tribesman in the first of the Tarzan movies (starring Elmo Lincoln), Tarzan of the Apes (1918). Ingram subsequently got a succession of the typical roles available to black actors in the silent era: butlers, porters, and native Africans. He was busier than most of his colleagues because of his startlingly good looks, his 6' 2" height, and substantial 220-pound build. The money was good and living in California agreed with him, even if the parts didn't, and he turned up in the silent The King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, as well as such early-'30s epics as Sign of the Cross. Lacking any formal acting training and having entered movies from literally right off the street, Ingram never considered working on the stage until someone suggested it. With help from English actor Alan Mowbray, he got readings and auditions and began studying everything he could find about the theater. He was cast in David Belasco's L.A. production of Lulu Belle in 1928 and proved a quick study and a superb performer. From there, he moved on to occasional roles in short-lived shows, the most notable of which was his portrayal of Crown in the drama Porgy. When there was no work in theater, he returned to movies, but the stage became his preference. A succession of theatrical roles followed, including the major part of Blacksnake Johnson in the Theatre Union's New York production of the topical play Stevedore and the title role at Suffern in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones -- a part immortalized onscreen by Robeson. Both performances raised his stature and the latter became the favorite of all Ingram's roles. He also broke some ground on the sociological and racial front, portraying the Prince of Morocco in a production of The Merchant of Venice that starred Estelle Winwood at the University of Illinois. In addition, he wrote and produced a play, Drums of the Bayou (which closed before reaching New York). His breakthrough came with the film version of Marc Connelly's play The Green Pastures. Ingram was initially cast as Adam, but stage manager Claude Archer suggested that Warner Bros. test Ingram for the role of De Lawd, pointing out that makeup could compensate for his being two decades too young for the part. But he slipped into it so convincingly, with his forceful, articulate presence and dignified, yet unpretentious, bearing, that he was cast in the role immediately. Ingram's performance as De Lawd in The Green Pastures film was the defining moment of his movie career and turned him into the most prominent black leading man in Hollywood -- not that there was much competition. Paul Robeson, who had emerged to stardom in the 1920s in Showboat and had done The Emperor Jones on film, was living in England at the time, making films there because there were simply no vehicles or roles available in Hollywood for strong, powerful, black leading men. Alas, Ingram encountered the same problem after playing De Lawd; there were few movie roles from the major studios suitable to an actor of such stature. He would not and could not go back to playing porters or African tribesmen, but he found himself unable to go forward either. The best offer he got was to do a theatrical revival of The Green Pastures, in which he refused to take part. So he left acting, returned to medicine, and planned to go into research. A year later, Ingram was bankrupt. Faced with the need to support his wife and daughter, he returned to acting, working in stock before heading back to New York and the Broadway stage for productions of The Emperor Jones and the WPA Theater production of Haiti. He returned to the screen in 1939 for the first time in three years, with his portrayal of Jim, the runaway slave, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In 1940, Ingram played what became the most well-known and beloved role of his career, as the towering Djinni in Alexander Korda's production of The Thief of Bagdad (1940). His character stood over 200-feet tall and he played his role solo against a blue-screen background, never actually interacting with the other performers in the same shot. He also turned the fantasy part into a compelling monologue on freedom that resonated far beyond the boundaries of the movie. Ingram continued to work steadily and well in plays such as Cabin in the Sky (he later starred in the movie version, as well) and films like The Talk of the Town. His best part from this period was that of the Sudanese army sergeant who joins a ragtag band of Allied soldiers fighting a delaying action in the desert in Zoltan Korda's Sahara. His performance was also one of the best elements of Dark Waters, a Hitchcock-like thriller starring Merle Oberon and Thomas Mitchell. Ingram was busy throughout the mid-'40s, including work in an all-black Broadway stage production of Lysistrata, and played a major role in Fritz Lang's Moonrise (1948). And then disaster struck. In April 1949, Ingram was arrested and accused of violating the Mann Act -- specifically, transporting a teenage Kansas girl to New York for "immoral purposes." He pleaded guilty in May and his screen career was crippled for the next six years. He did appear in an episode of Ramar of the Jungle, a series with which he would never have been associated in better times, and, in 1955, he did The Emperor Jones on the small screen as part of Kraft Television Theatre. He returned to movies that same year in Tarzan's Hidden Jungle, the kind of film in which he'd started 25 years earlier. There were some good roles in better productions such as God's Little Acre, Anna Lucasta (in which he starred), Elmer Gantry, and even Your Cheatin' Heart, but his days as an onscreen leading man were behind him. He got some great opportunities on-stage, however, most notably in Herbert Berghof's 1957 production of Waiting for Godot, which also starred Earl Hyman, Mantan Moreland, and Geoffrey Holder. In the late '60s, Ingram got roles in the movies Hurry Sundown and Journey to Shiloh and a prominent part in one episode of I Spy ("Weight of the World"). Comedian-turned-actor Bill Cosby also saw to it that Ingram got work in an episode of The Bill Cosby Show. Ingram died of a heart attack in September 1969, two months prior to the airing of that last television appearance.

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