Paul Robeson

Active - 1925 - 2011  |   Born - Apr 9, 1898   |   Died - Jan 23, 1976   |   Genres - Drama, History, Adventure

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His father was a Presbyterian minister who had escaped from slavery in his youth; his mother was a schoolteacher. An outstanding athlete, Robeson attended Rutgers on a scholarship and lettered in baseball, basketball, track, and football; later he played pro football while attending law school. Meanwhile, he performed in an amateur stage production at the Harlem YMCA. His acting was very successful and well received; playwright Eugene O'Neill requested that he star in his plays All God's Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones. Thus he gave up law for the theater, and soon gained much critical praise. Robeson began singing in recitals and appearing in films, soon becoming known as one of the most talented performers of his generation; his fame spread to Europe, where he frequently performed onstage and in concerts. He became especially identified with the song Ole Man River, made famous by his vibrant baritone rendition. In 1934 he visited the Soviet Union, returning several times in subsequent years. Seeking remedies to American civil rights abuses and racism, he became an exponent of leftist politics. In the early '40s he performed on Broadway and in a national tour in Othello. Robeson quit making movies after appearing in Tales of Manhattan (1942), in which ridiculous portrayal of rural blacks made him disgusted with Hollywood stereotypes; he denounced the film and never acted onscreen again. He became increasingly controversial for his political views. In 1946 he denied under oath that he had been a member of the Communist party, but refused to repeat his denial in a later inquiry. In 1950 his passport was revoked by the State Department. In 1952 he was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize, but not until 1958 was he permitted to leave the country to receive it. Although publicity about his political views led to a great reduction in his income, he continued touring Europe until the early '60s, when illness obliged him to return to the U.S. He was the subject of a documentary, Paul Robeson: Portrait of an Artist (1979).

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