Duane Jones, who played the hero, Ben, of “Night of the Living Dead,” set the stage in 1968 for many who followed his path to Hollywood stardom. As a student of live theatre, he was the best actor for the role of “Ben,” so he got the part. Even though the script didn’t mention race or ethnicity, Duane Jones got the part. But the story of talent winning the day, and actors relying on their craft to excel seems like a rare story in Hollywood today. How often does talent carry an actor beyond the stage and onto the screen for good?
Sidney Poitier is another actor to leap from the stage to celluloid in the sixties. His role in “A Raisin in the Sun” both on stage and on film helped make him the first Bahamian actor to win the Best Actor Oscar for “Lilies of the Field.”
Christopher Walken also used his theater background as a triple-threat to become an internet smash when he starred in Fatboy Slim’s video for “Weapon of Choice.” Walken swings, sashays, steps and snaps throughout a posh hotel in one of the most unanticipated performances in music video history. After revealing his song and dance roots, Walken’s career cruised into overdrive in films like “Hairspray” where all his talents could be on display.
Another unlikely song and dance man to make the transition to the silver screen was Jerry Orbach. Rising to fame as the world-weary detective Lennie Briscoe on the long-running “Law and Order,” Orbach’s training on the stage put him in position to voice the candelabra, Lumiere, in “Beauty and the Beast, ” who sings the show-stopping “Be Our Guest.”
A past in the theater has proven fertile training ground for actors to break out of being typecast into stereotypical roles. And there’s even more to Jones than his great theatrical skill – he was also an accomplished academic as well. He was well-versed as a leading man at several institutions of higher learning throughout his career, spearheading academically-oriented theater departments throughout the seventies.
Perhaps the respect Jones earned as an actor who earned a role in a film, rather than a black actor who portrayed a black character helped to trailblaze some of Hollywood’s most recent offerings. In Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” the horror genre follows Romero’s lead. Peele’s film has been nominated for three of the top Oscars this year.
Another film that stands on the shoulders of the groundbreaking work of actors like Poitier and Jones is the smash-hit “Black Panther.” A film that makes no issue of race, but unquestionably breaks ground in a Hollywood that has withstood criticism for depictions of race for decades. Jones’ work, grounded in stage acting, shows that an accomplished actor can rise above society’s concepts of race and roles. Actors like Jones have played an important part in establishing Hollywood as the place where even the most unlikely dreams can come true.
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