Despite a dazzling film and recording career that spanned the better part of the Twentieth century, and has extended (with occasional film activity) well into the Twenty-first, venerable African American entertainer Harry Belafonte is still best known as "The King of the Calypso." This title -- and Belafonte's concomitant crossover appeal to black and white audiences -- is even more astonishing for first happening over ten years before the Civil Rights movement took full swing.
Born March 1, 1927 in poverty-stricken Harlem to first-generation Jamaican immigrants, Belafonte emigrated with his mother back to Jamaica at eight years old, and returned to New York at age thirteen. Midway through high school, he dropped out and enlisted in the Navy. Upon discharge, the young man studied and performed at the Actors Studio (alongside such legends as Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando), Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research, and The American Negro Theater. A singing role in a theatrical piece led to a string of cabaret engagements, and before long, Belafonte's success enabled him to secure funding to open his own nightclub. His recording career officially began at the age of 22, in 1949, when he presented himself as a pop singer along the lines of Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra, but in time he found a more unique niche by delving headfirst into the Library of Congress's archive of folk song recordings and studying West Indian music. What emerged was a highly unique (and unprecedented) blend of pop, jazz and traditional Caribbean rhythms.
Belafonte subsequently opened at the Village Vanguard with accompaniment by Millard Thomas, then debuted cinematically with Bright Road (1953) and followed it up with Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones, co-starring, in each, with the ravishing (and ill-fated) Dorothy Dandridge. In 1954, Belafonte won a Tony Award for his work in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson's Almanac. His broadest success to date, however, lay two years down the road.
In 1956, Belafonte issued two RCA albums: Belafonte, and Calypso. To call the LP popular would be the understatement of the century; each effort crested the pop charts and remained there, the latter album for well over seven months. As a result, calypso music, typified by the twin hits "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)") and "Jamaica Farewell," became a national phenomenon.
Using his star clout, Belafonte was then able to realize several controversial film roles that studios would have rejected for a man of color in the late 1950s. In 1957's Island in the Sun, Belafonte's character entertains notions of an affair with white Joan Fontaine (thereby incurring the wrath of bigots everywhere). In Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), he plays a bank robber, uncomfortably teamed with a racist partner (Robert Ryan). And in The World, The Flesh and The Devil, also made in 1959, he portrays one of the last three survivors of a world-wide nuclear disaster.
Following his SRO Carnegie Hall show in 1959, Belafonte won an Emmy for his 1960 TV special, Tonight With Harry Belafonte (becoming, in the process, the first African American producer in television history). His cinematic activity nonetheless sharply declined during this period as he felt more and more dissatisfied by available film roles, but his recording output and civil rights work crescendoed over the course of the 1960s. In 1970, Belafonte returned to film work for the first occasion in almost ten years, by executive producing and starring alongside Zero Mostel in Czech director Jan Kadar's American debut, the fantasy The Angel Levine (1970). Adapted from a short story by Bernard Malamud, this gentle, sensitively-handled fable won the hearts of critics and devoted filmgoers nationwide, but subsequently fell through the cracks of the video revolution and went largely unseen for three decades. By 1971, Belafonte would act before the cameras only in the company of such close friends as Sidney Poitier, who directed Belafonte in Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). (The latter features the actor - as mustachioed "Geechie Dan" -- doing a particularly funny spoof of Marlon Brando's Godfather).
In 1984, Belafonte produced and scored the musical film Beat Street, and in 1985 he won awarded an Emmy for initiating the all-star We Are the World video. After a typically long absence from the screen, Belafonte returned in the 1996 reverse-racism drama White Man's Burden. That year, Belafonte also received some acclaim for his performance as gangster Seldom Seen in Robert Altman's Kansas City, despite the tepid response gleaned by the film at Cannes 1996 and other festivals.
For the next fifteen years, Belafonte continued to pursue cinematic activity, though rarely signed for fictional roles. He restricted his involvement for the remainder of the nineties (and into the 2000s) to documentary work and concert films, with participation, often as the host, narrator, or central performer, in such projects as Roots of Rhythm (1997), An Evening with Harry Belafonte and Friends (1997), Fidel (2001), Quincy Jones: In Pocket (2002), Calypso Dreams (2003) and When the Levees Broke (2006). In late 2006, Belafonte essayed another dramatic role as Nelson, an employee of the Ambassador Hotel, in Bobby, Emilio Estevez's highly-anticipated ensemble drama about the RFK assassination.
Alongside his recording and cinematic work, Belafonte has accumulated dozens of awards and honors bestowed upon him by various social-service and political organizations. Harry Belafonte is the father of actress/singer Shari Belafonte-Harper. Married to Marguerite Byrd from 1948-1957, he wed his second wife, Julie Robinson in 1957. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi