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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Black History Month Part 1

Better late than never. More work and a very ill child today so there was no time for the extra stuff! I sit bleary eyed once more at my drawing table at 3 am. Thanks for hanging in there!Here you go!

Obba Babatundé (voice of Lando Calrissian in SW: Rogue Squadron III and SW: Galactic Battlegrounds) was born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, New York in the 50's. Six short years after his birth he began to perform shows for his family. However, Babatundé made his professional debut, at the age of 14, as a member of the Metropolitan Brass Ensemble which toured the West Indies and the United States.

Brooklyn College was Babatundé's next step into the world and it was there where his love of acting took root as well as his dancing and singing. After graduating from college and founding the Harriet Tubman school with his brother, actor Akin Babatundé, he had parts in over a dozen New York stage productions including Guys and Dolls (1976), Timbuktu (1977-1978) and the hugely popular Dreamgirls (1981 - 1985) where he played/originated C.C. White (Effie's brother) a role which earned him a Tony nomination for Best Actor - Featured Role. For his stage work he's received nominations for the Barrymore Awards, Carbonell Awards and Dramalogue Awards.

The progression to TV was natural for this handsome and multi-talented man. His first TV appearance was on an ABC variety special called Baryshnikov on Broadway (1980 - which I clearly recall watching, since I was in love with Baryshnikov for a good part of my formative years) where he appeared as a dancer and signed as a regular, Rusty Bennett, on ABC's All My Children (NY). With a very successful go on Broadway (not everyone is that lucky AND talented) and a major soap opera under his belt Babatundé moved to Los Angeles to work in Film and television.

Babatundé received more acclaim with Blues in the Night, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge and Miss Evers' Boys (1997). The nominations came from the NAACP Image Awards, the Emmy Awards, the Cable Ace Awards and the Black Reel Awards. And a few selections of his film work include: The Celestine Prophecy (2005), The Manchurian Candidate (2004), The Wild Thornberry's Movie (2002), his award nominated performance in The Visit (2000), That Thing You Do! (1996), Philadelphia (1993), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Married to the Mob (1988).

His theatre career didn't die out with the move to sunny LA. He went on to star as Jelly in Jelly's Last Jam (1991) and also was the first African American man to play Billy Flynn on Broadway and in the national tour of Chicago (1997-1998), he also toured Asia with his own show, Obba in Concert to much acclaim. Babatundé has returned to the stage in Chicago the Musical this year, again as Billy Flynn. The production is at the Dupont Theatre in Wilmington, DE through February 12.

Babtundé has added voice-work, writing and producing to his already wide range of talents. He's been the voice of Lando Calrissian in two LucasArts Star Wars video games: SW: Rogue Squadron III (2003); SW: Galactic Battlegrounds (2001), voiced Boko in The Wild Thornberrys Movie (2003), worked on three PBS documentaries: Dorothy Dandridge: An American Beauty (2003 - narrator/host), wrote and directed Oscar's Black Odyssey: From Hattie to Haley (2003), and hosted Television in Black: The first 50 years (2004). He's just finished penning Woman Ta Woman starring Valarie Pettiford (his TV wife from Half & Half).

Mr. Babatundé lives in Los Angeles with his family and I'm sure we'll see more and more of him in years to come.

Tace Bayliss (Stass Allie - Holographic form on Kashyyyk in ROTS) There isn't a lot of information on Ms. Baylis out there but she did direct a short film that made the international film festival circuit called Why.

The film is twenty minutes in length and was released in 1994.
A description of the film: The only way to a clear conscience is not to be afraid of speaking the truth.

Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks - PT and Ackmed Beq in AOTC). Ahmed Best was another talented performer born in New York, this time out of the South Bronx (Soundview) on August 19, 1973 (with twin brother Khalid). He was raised there until 1984 when his family moved to Maplewood, NJ. He attended Columbia High School.

Best displayed his percussive/singing/dancing talents throughout his youth and by the time he graduated from Columbia HS in 1991 he went on to attend the Manhattan School of Music where he studied percussion in the Jazz and Contemporary Music department, he graduated in 1994. Best turned down a full athletic scholarship to Syracuse University to study music.

Fresh from graduating from the MSM he joined the Acid Jazz group JazzHole. JazzHole was founded by Warren Rosenstein, John Pondel and Marlon Saunders and has been described as modern urban soul "...a sound that incorporates downtempo grooves and acoustic Rhythm and Blues with hints of ambient electronica and bossa nova."

It was Mr. Rosenstein, in the early 90's, who gathered talent (including Ahmed Best) from those working or hanging out at Context Studios, a performing arts center, on Manhattan's Lower East Side to form JazzHole. Their first album was released in 1994 and called The Jazz Hole and Best contributed his skill as a rapper. The album debuted to high acclaim.

Best spent much of the 90's as a member of the award-winning percussion production STOMP! which played at the Orpheum Theatre in New York and toured the US, UK and Europe, Japan and even Greece. The group also performed in a variety of TV commercials and programs.

In 1998 George Lucas discovered Best while performing in STOMP! and asked him to try out for a role in the new Star Wars film he was filming. The role, we all know, was that of *Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace (1999) He's also played Binks in five Star Wars video games.

Best went on to have roles in TV and film, including the two subsequent Star Wars films Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), but he was also the English voice of Mouse in Armitage: Dual Matrix (2001) and starred in several Sacred Fools Theatre Productions (Hollywood, CA) including Jack, Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Tempest.

Currently Best runs his own company called Stop That Bangin! Productions and is working on his music. You can hear nine of his musical works on his official site

*Many people consider him a bad actor and person, simply because of his role as Jar Jar Binks. I think this is harshly unjust, the man is obviously very talented in so much and it's a shame that others can't see past one fictitious character.

Diahann Carroll (nee Carol Diahann Johnson) (Holographic Wow in the Star Wars Holiday Special) was born on July 17, 1935 in Harlem, the Bronx, New York to John and Mable Johnson.

Carroll's interest in entertainment started when she was 10 years old. She won a scholarship to study at the Metropolitan Opera she went on to study at the prestigious Manhattan High School for the Performing Arts (made super famous by the film Fame) with Billy Dee Williams. After graduation she went to New York University to study sociology but in 1954 she left to become a full-time entertainer.
She started to model, first job was modeling petticoats for Ebony Magazine, she was a hit on the New York City nightclub scene and landed a role in Carmen Jones (1954), an all-black version of Bizet's Carmen and made her Broadway debut in Truman Capote's House of Flowers (1954).

Singing was another love and Carroll and was making hit singles from House of Flowers in 1955 to Don't Answer Me in 1967. She continued to sing throughout her career. By 1962 Carroll had nearly become a household name and she had won a Tony Award for her role in No Strings.

In 1956 Carroll married Flip Wilson Show producer Monte Kay, they had a daughter in 1960, Suzanne who later became a journalist, but the marriage only lasted for three more years and ended in divorce in 1963...this was due in part to her much publicized private affair with her Paris Blues co-star Sidney Poitier, this relationship lasted for several years and they were even engaged for a short time, they never married.

By 1968 she had become the first Black woman to star in her own TV sitcom, Julia. (Note: I recall vividly seeing Carroll on this show when I was little, I thought she was the most beautiful 'girl' I'd ever seen, I was all of 4 or 5.) Her role as Julia earned her a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy nomination. She left the show after three years due to stress issues.

Carroll had also become engaged to British TV journalist David Frost but the marriage never happened. In 1973 she married Freddie Glusman but they were divorced after 4 months of marriage. By 1975 she had met and married 24 year old Ebony magazine Editor Robert DeLeon, two years later he was killed in a car accident while intoxicated. She would not remarry until 1987 and that was to singer Vic Damone, they were divorced in 1996.

Carroll continued her film, stage and singing career but left TV until the 80's where she would play businesswoman Dominique Deveraux Lloyd on the tremendously popular Dynasty. Her film roles include Porgy and Bess (1959) , Claudine (1974 - with James Earl Jones) which earned her an Academy Award best actress nomination, Eve's Bayou (1997).
She starred as Dr. Livingstone in Agnes of God (which, by the way, was written by Star Wars alum John Pielmeier) in 1982 with actress Carrie Fisher who played Agnes.

In 1995 Carroll was the first African-American to land the role of Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard and in 1997 she was the first African-American woman to start her own clothing line.

Carroll has won or been nominated for many awards over her career including a Crystal Award for her body of work, daytime and regular Emmys, Golden Globes, NAACP Image Awards, Lucy Award, TV Land Award, Tony Award. In 1996 she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

This year she's starring in her own production called The Life and Times of Diahann Carroll, she'll be 71 this year and looks fantastic.

Tony Cox (Willy Widdle Warrick the scientist in ROTJ, both Ewok films). Cox was born on March 31, 1958 in New York City (Woman's Hospital) to Joe and Henrietta Jones Cox. But at 9 months old his mother took him to live with her parents (Henry and Lottie Jones) who lived in Uniontown, Alabama.

By all accounts Cox lived a completely normal childhood and nobody treated him any differently, because of his size, than any of the other people in the small town of 2000. He had loads of friends, played basketball and was a keen drummer. His grandmother, Lottie, can be credited with an incredible level of support and love for her grandson and what she saw and knew of his talents. She spared nothing to highlight his talents at every turn.

After graduating from high school and attending Alabama State University he got the acting bug and it was during his studies at ASU where some relatives visiting from LA encouraged him to go to California and make a go of it.

So off to Hollywood he went. He started by trying to get into acting classes in early 80's, but his first experience was negative, the head of the first school refused to admit him because "'re black. You got a strike against you already." Undeterred, Cox tried other schools with very positive feedback and he began classes at the Merrick Studio School of Acting and actively joined Little People of America. Several years after being rejected by that first school he was back to speak about making it in the business.

Cox starred with Billy Barty (founder of Little People of America) and 223 other little people on the film Willow (1988). Willow was an interesting experience for the little people involved in the filming. The call for little actors started in the UK but came up short of the over 200 needed so there was a Europe-wide call. The set was filled with people from 13 different countries and the language barrier was difficult at times. It was Cox and Barty who changed all that by getting to know all the others who had been flown in for filming to get along and feel good about what they were doing and who they were.

Cox might best be known recently for his portrayal Marcus, a crass assistant/elf to Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa (2003), but he's contributed to many films and TV programs over the years. Including, of course, playing an Ewok (Willy Waddle Warrick) in Return of the Jedi and both Ewok films (Fader (music magazine) interviewed Cox in 2004 and he talked about moving past little person roles but he did add, "..the only role like that I would be interested in is Yoda"), he also played the limo driver in Me, Myself and Irene (2000) and had roles in The Hebrew Hammer (2003), Leprechaun 1 & 2 (1993 and 1994), Spaced Invaders (1990), Bird (1988), Beetlejuice (1988), Spaceballs (1987) and Blade Runner (1982) with Harrison Ford.

On TV Cox started on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, then both Ewoks movies, thirtysomething, Married...With Children, the Jamie Foxx Show, Frasier and Rescue Me.

Cox still plays basketball and has played for the Hollywood Shorties, he can sink a basket from nearly 40 feet, but he's also a champion table-tennis player and is active in the marital arts. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife.

David Alan Grier (voice of Bo Shek/various characters in the Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi Radio Drama - 1997) was born on June 30, 1955 in Detroit, Michigan.

Grier first became interested in acting when he was at the University of Michigan. A friend of his had a theatre and needed warm bodies to play minor roles, this friend asked David to come and try. He did and was hopelessly hooked from that point on.

He graduated from the University of Michigan (called Cass Tech at his graduation) and earned a Bachelor's degree in Radio, Television and Film (under the tutelage of Rhonnie Washington) and then was accepted to the Yale School of Drama where he earned a Masters degree in 1981.

He started his acting career with drama but has found a perfect niche in comedic parts, it is not difficult to imagine him now in a dramatic role. He is equally at home in all the types of characters he plays. He's gone from serious drama, on stage in Peer Gynt, on film in A Soldier's Story (1984), and his Golden Lion Award-winning performance in Streamers (1983), to a vast array of comedic parts like his years on In Living Color, his participation in Crank Yankers and others. He's also thrown in a few children's fare including MuppetsWizard of Oz (2005), Sesame Street, the Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (2000) and Stuart Little (1999) to hosting a game show in 1990 called Pure Insanity!He's also starred in the critically acclaimed stage production of Dreamgirls and and he most recently replaced Billy Dee Williams as Fernando Perez in The Mambo Kings on Broadway in 2005/2006. (Note: Williams suffered from an injury that prevented him from finishing the production.)

It seems natural for Mr. Grier to be interested in speed since he hails from the Motor City, he loves car and motorcycle racing, but isn't partial to NASCAR and hates Harley's...he loves sports bikes. He has participated in the Long Beach Grand Prix, a race in Southern California where George Lucas has also raced.

Art is another important part of Grier's life and he's collected for years. He first started with African-American movie posters, moved to prints then started collecting originals.

Grier is active on the speaker circuit and has spoken on campuses and in theatres all over the US.

Mr. Grier lives in Los Angeles, CA with his wife Maritsa.
Thanks for reading!



Nerf-Herders Anonymous said...

Smugglers Rants

date Posted: Feb 05, 2006 4:49 AM
Nice one, that's a very cool blog, I wasn't aware of quite a few of those (although anyone who's seen the Holiday Special will have that scary and slkightly disturbing scene of Diahann Carroll turning on an adolescent Wookie etched indelibly into their minds for the rest of their lives...)

The Grand Admiral's Club

date Posted: Feb 05, 2006 5:15 AM
Hello, very good read! Even though I personally i'm a little leary of separating African-American history from the rest of the country, It's good to find out about the unknown heros that persevered through poverty, racism, and others things, and became great role-models for any child. Thank you very much!

Son of a Bith
The Cantina Corner

date Posted: Feb 05, 2006 11:54 AM
Great point about Ahmed. It is severely immature to hate a person based on a fictional character they played. This happens alot though. Christopher Walken has played so many creepy characters in movies that he is now trying to reverse that image by playing in comedies and on SNL.

I can just picture Walken going down the street and having people go quiet and start walking the other way...

Life, the Star Wars Universe and Everything

date Posted: Feb 05, 2006 12:05 PM

"turning on an adolescent Wookie etched indelibly into their minds for the rest of their lives.."
turning on an OLD Wookiee, still...eeeww! lol No kidding! Obviously burned my retina. I know far more than I should about the SWHS.

"It's good to find out about the unknown heros"
I understand what your saying in a way but that's why they have BHM, so we CAN know them. Our knowledge of anyone without white skin is severely lacking and embarrasses me as a human being.
Though in this case most of these people ARE well-known which really makes my job highlighting them rreeeaaallly easy. hehe


Life, the Star Wars Universe and Everything

date Posted: Feb 05, 2006 2:30 PM
"It is severely immature"

"I can just picture Walken going down the street and having people go quiet and start walking the other way..."
hehe, yes. I can picture it too.
Problem is he's just too darn good at playing those characters. As are Joe Pesci, Jack Nicholson or Robert DeNiro.


peter said...

you said david alan grier

graduated from the University of Michigan (called Cass Tech at his graduation) ...

grier graduated from cass technical high school in detroit, and from the university of michigan in ann arbor. these are not the same institution.

Nerf-Herders Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nerf-Herders Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for letting me know, Peter!
The info on DAG has been changed. :D