Alvin Childress, the homespun philosopher and cabdriver who was “Amos” on the highly controversial and short-lived “Amos ‘n’ Andy” television series, has died, it was learned Monday.
Childress--whose theatrical career virtually ended with the cancellation of the CBS series in 1953--was 78 and died Saturday at St. Erne Sanitarium in Inglewood. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner said he had suffered from several illnesses, among them Parkinson’s disease and pneumonia.
Childress was among the last of the actors cast for the television version of the highly popular “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio series. On radio, Amos Jones and Andrew (Andy) Hogg Brown had been played by two white men--Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll--who retained control of the casting process when the show shifted to television and 68 half-hour episodes were filmed from 1951 to 1953.
The TV version required black actors and auditions took four years.
Childress, in a 1964 interview with The Times, recalled that “Mr. Correll and Mr. Gosden were not easy to please. I don’t think they ever got over not being able to do the TV show themselves.”
Eventually Childress, Spencer Williams as Andy and Tim Moore as the rascally George (The Kingfish) Stevens went on the small screen to immediate kudos. Set in Harlem, the show featured Stevens as the head--or “Kingfish"--of the Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge and his get-rich schemes far exceeded any fealty he felt to such lodge brothers as Amos, or more particularly, Andy.
Andy generally was the simple, gullible dupe of The Kingfish’s swindles, and when either Amos or Andy would catch him in one of his unscrupulous deals, Kingfish would appeal to them thusly:
“Holy mackerel, Andy! We’s all got to stick together in dis heah thing. . . . Remember, we is brothers in that great fraternity, the Mystic Knights of the Sea.”
It was this parody of the black as ignorant, shiftless and gullible that eventually doomed the program. The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights organizations attacked the show as perpetuating racial stereotypes and it was pulled off the air despite high ratings. It did however, remain popular in syndication until the mid-1960s.
Childress--who at first was forced to take jobs parking cars before landing an occasional minor role in films--finally found regular work as a social worker with Los Angeles County.
He complained that the NAACP had done him no favor, adding in The Times interview:
“I don’t feel it (the series) harmed the Negro at all. Actually the series had many episodes which showed the Negro with professions and businesses like attorneys, store owners and so on which they never had in TV or movies before.”
Childress--who worked regularly on the New York stage before being cast as Amos--is survived by his wife, Sophie.