On this day in comedy on February 26, 1933, Comedian, Actor, Godfrey MacArthur Cambridge was born in New York City, New York
If his parents had had their way, Cambridge would’ve become a doctor. He attended Hofstra College where he studied medicine for three years, then woke up one morning, dropped out and became an actor. That was probably a dramatic moment remembered by all who witnessed, but then the reality of being a struggling actor set in. Cambridge found himself doing less acting and more job bouncing. He was an ambulance driver, a gardener, bead-sorter, cab driver, popcorn bunny maker, airplane cleaner, New York Housing Authority clerk and judo instructor.
Cambridge’s hard work to keep food in his belly paid off. He took his bartending skills from real life and played a bartender in his first play, Take a Giant Step. It was off-Broadway, but in 1957 he made it to the big time. He debuted in the original production of Herman Wouk’s Nature’s Way. Four years later Cambridge earned an Obie Award for his work in The Blacks: A Clown Show. A year later he received a Tony nomination for his work in the original version of Ossie Davis’ Purlie Victorious in a cast that included Ruby Dee, Helen Martin, Beah Richards, Alan Alda, Sorrell Booke and Roger C. Carmel. His performance in 1965’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was lauded as well. Cambridge proved himself to be an accomplished actor.
Godfrey Cambridge was also good on film. He played a government agent in The President’s Analyst (1967); a cab driver in Bye Bye Braverman (1968); a white racist who turns black in Watermelon Man (1970); a line-crossing cop in Cotton Comes to Harlem and its sequel Come Back Charleston Blue (1972) and a gay gangster in Pam Grier’s Friday Foster (1975). In 1970 he financed and produced the graphic anti-drug film, Dead is Dead, where actual addicts were shown shooting up and going through withdrawal. Cambridge also appeared in the films, The Busy Body, The Biggest Bundle of Them All, The Biscuit Eater, Beware! The Blob and Whiffs.
Godfrey Cambridge made his presence known on television. He guest-starred on Car 54 Where Are You?, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Spy, The Phil Silvers Show and in Night Gallery playing a comedian who appeals to a genie to get his career back on track. Steven Spielberg directed that episode which co-starred Tom Bosley. Cambridge also did underwear commercials for Jockey.
Standup comedy was another Cambridge strength. In 1965 Time magazine recognized him as being one of the top four most celebrated Black comedians in the nation along with Dick Gregory, Nipsey Russell and Bill Cosby. Cambridge was universally accepted with a brand of comedy that though truthful, sarcastic and incisive, was unifying. He made appearances on The Tonight Show and was one of the country’s top earning nationally headlining standup comedians. In a career spanning several decades he released four albums; all from Epic Records.
Godfrey Cambridge died on November 29, 1976 in Burbank, California of a heart attack. It occurred while he was filming Victory at Entebbe, a movie where Cambridge was portraying Uganda’s brutal president, Idi Amin Dada. When the news was made public Amin was quoted as saying Cambridge’s death was “punishment from God”. Godfrey Cambridge was 43 years old.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
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