May 22, 1939– Paul Winfield:
“Hollywood gives prestige out by the buckets, but they give power by the teaspoon, just enough to stroke your ego.”
I was just 19-years-old when I was emotionally crippled by the film Sounder (1972). Embarrassed, I had to be the last to leave the theatre as I was weeping myself into a headache. It was a terrifyingly moving experience. I am still destroyed by stories of racial injustice, plus dog stories send me over the edge. I recommend this excellent film, but spoiler alert: Dog Stories Always Have The Same Ending.
Sounder takes place in 1933 Louisiana. The Morgans, a loving and strong family of African-American sharecroppers: the father (Winfield) tries to teach his son (Kevin Hooks) to be a man and survive in the Great Depression with their dog, Sounder. But, the father is imprisoned for a year after stealing food to feed his starving family. On his way to visit his father, the son discovers a school, where a kind but firm teacher takes him in and teaches him about important African-American figures in history. The son is desperate to go to school, but when his father is released a maimed man, he must choose between an education that can give him a better life or staying home to help his father.
Sounder, directed by Martin Ritt, received Academy Award Nominations for Best Film, Best Actor for Winfield, Best Actress for Cicely Tyson and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was a favorite with the critics, a box-office success, and one of those rare films about the black experience to have a major crossover into the mainstream market, and a contrast to the tide of blaxploitation movies released at the time.
Winfield was only the third black male actor to be nominated for an Oscar, and the third African-American to receive a nomination for a leading role, after Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier.
Around the same time, Winfield played Jim in a peculiar, yet oddly homoerotic, musical film version of Huckleberry Finn (1974) with songs by the Sherman Brothers: Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, who did the tunes for Mary Poppins (1964), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), The Jungle Book (1967). Possessing a strong beautiful baritone, Winfield was a gifted voice-over artist. He provided voices on the cartoons Spider-Man, Batman Beyond, and The Simpsons where he parodied Don King as Lucius Sweet.
For much of his career Winfield was a character actor. He claimed that he was not “particularly pretty and could not sing or dance”. He started his career in television playing minor roles, mostly heavies. But then, Winfield played Diahann Carroll‘s boyfriend in the television sitcom Julia (1968-1971), the first network show to have a black woman as the star. Carroll plays a nurse, making the show notable for being one of the first series to depict an African-American woman in a non-stereotypical role instead of a servant.
Poitier helped Winfield get his first film role in The Lost Man (1969), in which Poitier starred. Winfield was to go on to appear in 50 films, television productions and on stage. His films include Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan (1982), The Terminator (1984), and Mars Attacks! (1996).
He was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in the television series King (1978) and as a college administrator in Roots: The Next Generation (1979). He finally won an Emmy in 1995 for his guest appearance as a judge in Picket Fences.
In Strange Justice (1999), he portrayed the first African-American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall. His last appearance was as the teacher in a television remake of Sounder in 2003, directed by Kevin Hooks who played his son in the original film.
Born in Los Angeles, he was brought up by a union leader mother and construction worker stepfather. Eight-year-old Winfield saw Mark Robson‘s groundbreaking film Home Of The Brave (1949) about racism in the U.S. Army. It broke a Hollywood taboo by prominently featuring black actor James Edwards in a heroic role and Winfield said the film inspired him to become an actor.
His parents’ response to Edwards’ performance had a galvanizing effect on Winfield:
“He wasn’t the porter, the servant. It was a soldier, somebody they could look up to. It was a real revelation.”
Winfield spent his grade school years in the very segregated Portland, Oregon. He return to L.A., where he was bussed to Manual Arts High School, a majority-white school, where his drama teacher encouraged Winfield to give professional acting a try.
He accepted a scholarship to study Theatre at the University of Portland. In 1966, actor/director Burgess Meredith cast him in two plays by the controversial playwright and poet Amiri Baraka. His only Broadway role was in Checkmates (1988), opposite Ruby Dee, also the Broadway debut of some guy named Denzel Washington. He appeared in productions at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., and The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.
A Civil Rights activist, he was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and won an Image Award by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Winfield was gay in his private life, but like other actors of the era, he was discreet about it in his professional life. He played gay characters in Mike’s Murder (1984) and Relax…It’s Just Sex (1998).
His partner of 30+ years, architect Charles Gillan Jr., preceded him in death in 2002. Winfield long battled obesity and diabetes. He was taken by a heart attack in 2004 at 64-years-old. He and Gillian are buried together at beautiful Forest Lawn Memorial Park, one of my favorite spots in LA (well, Glendale, but you know what I mean). Somehow, The NY Times and Los Angeles Times failed to mention that he was gay and had a longtime partner. Go figure.