Spencer Williams was born in Vidalia, Louisiana. He lived his teen-age years in New York, working as a call boy for Oscar Hammerstein and while being mentored as a comedian by Bert Williams. By 1923 Spencer Williams was in Hollywood getting bits parts in films like Buster Keaton’s comedy classic, Steamboat Bill, Jr.
In 1929, Williams created the dialogue for a series of comedy films featuring all-black casts. That developed into him creating The Melancholy Dame, the first black talkie. Despite being an innovator, the Depression hit Spencer Williams like everybody else and he struggled; getting uncredited parts in well regarded films such as 1931’s smash hit Public Enemy.
Spencer Williams didn’t care for unemployment so he expanded his range of skills. Besides being an actor and writer, Williams was also a sound technician, an assistant director, a casting director, supervisor for recording sessions and by 1931 a co-founder of Lincoln Talking Pictures Company; making movies and news reels. Self-financed, Williams built most of the equipment including a sound truck.
Williams was a driving force behind race films; those all-black cast independents made for black audiences in segregated theaters. Initially he got roles in all-black Westerns and moved into writing. He wrote the Western, Harlem Rides the Range and the horror-comedy, Son of Ingari. He utilized his growing experience to integrate into directing. At the time the only other black director was the renowned Oscar Micheaux. Williams traveled throughout the South showing his films.
Spencer Williams first major success (and some say his masterpiece) was 1941’s The Blood of Jesus produced by his own company, Amnegro, on a $5,000 budget using non-professional actors. It is recognized as the most successful race film ever made.
His subsequent films did not garner the critical nor financial success. He found himself in another career rut. After a series of directing mediocre race films patterned after Hollywood movies, Williams left Dallas and returned to the real Hollywood and his future as Andy in the immensely popular Amos N Andy; except instead of being on radio it was the television version.
Amos ‘n Andy was the first U.S. television program with an all-black cast, running for 78 episodes on CBs starting in 1951. It co-starred Alvin Childress as Amos and Tim Moore as the Kingfish. Unfortunately the show was met with controversy; complaints of stereotypical portrayals by the NAACP, who filed a federal court injunction to halt its premiere. That was that. It soon met an inglorious fate of early cancellation in 1953. Following the show’s demise, the cast took it on the road, but CBS considered that a violation and the tour was halted.
Williams bumped around awhile longer, but eventually retired and lived of his military pension. Spencer Williams died of a kidney ailment on December 13, 1969.
By Darryl ‘D’ Militant’ Littleton