Jester Hairston Dies; Actor Overcame Race Stereotypes
Jester Hairston ran naked yelling ‘Bwana, bwana!” through more Tarzan movies than he cared to remember.
He had to lose his Boston accent to win long-running roles on the radio and television versions of “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” a classic show eventually run off the air because of objections over its demeaning depictions of blacks. Later he played the wisecracking Rolly Forbes on the 1980s sitcom “Amen.”
But the veteran actor, who died Tuesday in Los Angeles at 98, never made apologies for portraying racial stereotypes during his career, which embodied the black actor’s struggle in Hollywood.
“We had a hard time then fighting for dignity,” he once said of his early roles. " . . . We had no power. We had to take it, and because we took it the young people today have opportunities.”
Hairston was equally adamant about the need to preserve Negro spirituals, the focus of his other career. He was a sought-after choral director for half a century who organized Hollywood’s first integrated choir and composed or arranged more than 300 spirituals. He was best known for his arrangement of “Amen,” which he dubbed for Sidney Poitier in the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field.”
Continuing to conduct choirs in his 90s, he crisscrossed the world as a goodwill ambassador for the State Department.
The grandson of a slave, Hairston was born in Belews Creek, N.C., in 1901 but moved north as a child to Pittsburgh, where generations of his family worked in steel mills. He escaped the mills through a scholarship from his Baptist church and enrolled in landscape design at Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts).
He dropped out for several years when his money ran out, returning to school when he met a woman who was so impressed with his singing that she offered to finance his education in music. He wound up at Tufts University, graduating in 1929.
Making his way to New York, he met Hall Johnson, a popular conductor of Negro spirituals whose choir was the most prominent black singing group of the 1930s. Hairston became his assistant.
He came to California with the choir in 1935 and got his big break when the Russian-born conductor and composer Dmitri Tiomkin asked him to conduct the choir in the 1936 film “Lost Horizon,” which won an Oscar for best score. That began a 20-year association with Tiomkin, who inspired him to form the first integrated choir used in films, including “Red River,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Land of the Pharaohs.”
It was Johnson who taught Hairston to respect the Negro spiritual. Having survived the elitist environment of the Boston area while attending Tufts, Hairston came to Johnson with a cockiness he felt he had earned. But Johnson initially rejected Hairston when he asked to become his assistant.
“You don’t have the right attitude toward these songs,” Johnson told him. “We’re singing ain’t and cain’t and you’re singing shahn’t and cahn’t and they don’t mix in a spiritual.”
Hairston got rid of his cahn’ts and shahn’ts. Remembering the stories and songs of his grandmother, he dedicated himself not just to preserving the music of the slaves but also to memorializing the conditions that gave birth to it. During college workshops, he would tell students, “You can’t sing legato when the master’s beatin’ you across your back.”
When Hairston wasn’t arranging music, he had to find other work. He won small parts in movies, playing African natives in Tarzan films and butlers in others. During casting for “Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle,” a 1955 release, the director handed the diminutive Hairston, who had played screaming savages in previous movies, a meatier role: witch doctor. Hairston recalled his bemused reaction years later: “Good gracious, I’ve been promoted!”
To get radio work, Hairston said, "[I] had to lose my Boston accent and learn to say ‘Yassuh.’ ”
“If they wanted you to say ‘Yassuh, boss,’ then you said it,” he recalled in an interview. “You didn’t say what I was taught in Boston: ‘Yes, sir.’ If I had said ‘Yes, sir,’ I would never have made it.”
His Bostonian inflections came in handy when he was cast as Henry Van Porter, “the society man from black society” who ridiculed Amos and Andy. He also played the less polished Leroy, Kingfish’s brother-in-law.
In 1986 he landed the role of Rolly in the NBC sitcom “Amen.” He appeared in such films as films “In the Heat of the Night,” “Lady Sings the Blues” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Hairston is survived by his daughter, Jeane-Marie Swann of Los Angeles, three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held Monday at 11 a.m. at Holman Methodist Church, 3320 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles.