Lorenzo Tucker, American cinema's best-known black leading man in an era when blacks were forced to produce their own films that were then shown to segregated audiences, has died.
The actor many called "The Black Valentino" for his dashing good looks and star qualities was 79 and died Tuesday night at his home in Hollywood.
His biographer, Richard Grupenhoff, said he had been suffering from cancer.
Tucker, who most recently was earning a living as a security guard in a mid-Wilshire office building, was a stage and vaudeville actor whose mother had hoped he would be a doctor.
But "as a child I used to like to recite poems . . . I wanted, I guess to be seen."
He attended college in his native Philadelphia but left there to become first a hotel waiter and then a dancer, after a chorus girl taught him adagio steps.
In a 1985 interview with The Times, he recalled how he broke into the business "strutting" in a sketch with nightclub singer Evelyn Nesbit. The number further whetted his appetite for show business, and he moved to vaudeville as a dancer and straight man and then into minstrel shows as the interlocutor or master of ceremonies.
He performed with Bessie Smith, the legendary blues singer, in black theaters throughout the country and in 1926, met Oscar Micheaux, among the first and now the best known of the small cadre of black film producers.
Micheaux not only produced films, but he wrote, directed, edited and promoted them in segregated theaters. His films proved so commercially viable that Micheaux was able to borrow enough money from theater owners who had screened his last offering so that he could finance his next.
Micheaux took on Tucker as a prime love interest opposite several black beauties in such low-budget but popular pictures as "Wages of Sin," "Daughter of the Congo," "Harlem Big Show," "Temptation" and "Veiled Aristocrats".
If not memorable for their content, they were for their economics. Micheaux shot his films on neighborhood streets or in his New York apartment and seldom if ever re-shot a scene.
Tucker remembered asking for another take of one scene and was told by Micheaux: "Tucker, you already know how to walk and talk."
From 1927 to 1936, Tucker starred in 11 of the Micheaux pictures and woke up one morning to find himself "The Black Valentino" after Micheaux had returned from one of his fund-raising forays.
A theater owner needed a picture to pair with Valentino's "Son of the Sheik" in order to attract a black crowd and Micheaux quickly displayed a photo of Tucker, commenting that "this was the black Valentino."
Tucker continued to make all-black films through the 1930s and '40s, but now they were for white producers who were beginning to capitalize on an expanding black market. Among them were "Emperor Jones" with Paul Robeson "Boy, What a Girl," "Reet Petite and Gone" and "Straight to Heaven."
Returned to Stage
After World War II service in the Air Force, where he both produced shows and fought in Europe, Tucker found that integration had doomed race films. He returned to the stage, where his longest-running credit was in an all-black production of "Anna Lucasta" in England.
In the 1950s, he worked with such other black stars as Butterfly McQueen and Dooley Wilson before forming his own short-lived Negro Drama Players, a group which brought Broadway shows with black casts to the South.
At his height in the late 1920s and early '30s, Tucker was on Broadway with Mae West in "The Constant Sinner," (banned in Washington because Tucker had kissed her on stage), was featured in lavish nightclub revues and was seen on screens across the country.
He left show business in 1962 because of a paucity of parts, worked as an autopsy assistant in New York City and then moved to Hollywood permanently in 1977, where he continued to seek work. He took the nighttime security guard job, he said, so his days would be free for interviews.
He complained that his light skin worked as a reverse prejudice in finding film work.
"There's no reason why you've got to use one type of black to represent all colored people."
Grupenhoff, his biographer, said that Tucker had spent much of his later years compiling memorabilia on black films and was a consultant for many films on black history.
"He was one of the few black performers whose career spanned almost every important phase of black film and theater in America," the writer said.
Services will be conducted at Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church in Hollywood on Friday at 10:30 a.m. Tucker is survived by his wife, Paulina.