by: Earl Wright
James Baskett Quick Facts
• Born: February 16, 1904
• Died: September 9, 1948
• Achievement: First African American Male to win an Oscar Award
• Place of Birth: Indianapolis, IN
Illness and Death
After abandoning his studies of pharmacology for financial reasons, James Baskett supported himself as an actor, moving from his home town of Indianapolis, Indiana to New York City,New York and joining the company of Bill Robinson, better known as Mr. Bojangles. As Jimmie Baskette, he appeared on Broadway with Louis Armstrong in the all-black musical revue Hot Chocolates in 1929, and was announced for Hummin' Sam in 1933, although it failed to open. Mr. Baskett also acted in several all-black films made in the New York area, including Harlem Is Heaven (1932) starring Bill Robinson. He went to Los Angeles, California and had a supporting role in Straight to Heaven (1939), starring Nina Mae McKinney, and bit parts in the films Revenge of the Zombies(1943) and The Heavenly Body (1944). He was invited by Freeman Gosden to join the cast of the Amos 'n' Andy radio show as lawyer Gabby Gibson, whom he portrayed from 1944 to 1948.
In 1945, he auditioned for a bit part voicing one of the animals in the new Disney feature film Song of the South (1946), based on the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris. Walt Disney was impressed with Baskett's talent and hired him on the spot for the lead role of Uncle Remus. Baskett was also given the voice role of Brer Fox, one of the film's animated antagonists, and even filled in as the main animated protagonist, Brer Rabbit, in one sequence. This was one of the first Hollywood portrayals of a black actor as a non-comic character in a leading role in a film meant for general audiences.
Baskett was not allowed to attend the film's premiere in Atlanta, Georgia because Atlanta was racially segregated by law.
Although Baskett was occasionally criticized for accepting such a "demeaning" role, his acting was almost universally praised, and columnist Hedda Hopper was one of the many journalists who declared that he should receive an Academy Award for his work.
Baskett had been in poor health around 1946 during the filming of Song Of the South due to diabetes and suffered a heart attack. His health continued to decline, and he was often unable to attend the Amos and Andy show he was in. On July 9, 1948 during the show's summer hiatus, Baskett died of heart failure resulting from the diabetes at age 44 and was survived by his wife, Margaret. He is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
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