Stepin Fetchit is slowly coming to be recognized as the great comic supporting actor he was widely hailed as in his 1930s heyday. The problem is that his persona was that of the slow-witted, servile black man. That this limited and restricting stereotype represented about the sum total of options available to a young black comic at the time is undeniable; what is less clear is what those who have denigrated him would have had him do instead. When the only choice is not to appear at all, or to do the job so well that you steal every scene you are in, it's lucky Fetchit went for the second option.
It is an ironic fact, often forgotten, that players such as Fetchit and Mantan Moreland were often cast so as to attract black audiences, not alienate them. Successful comedians on the black circuit, their fans viewed an appearance in a mainstream Hollywood movie as an empowering achievement. Fetchit became a superstar and a millionaire, at one time owning 12 cars and employing 16 servants.
Born to West Indian immigrant parents, Fetchit became a journalist and comic entertainer in vaudeville before making his film debut in The Mysterious Stranger (1925). He went on to make many films, reaching his peak in the 1930s when he costarred with Will Rogers
in several movies, including John Ford
's Steamboat Round the Bend (1935). After being declared bankrupt in 1947 he kept working, albeit sporadically. He became a friend of boxing champion Muhammad Ali and converted to Islam in the 1960s. He received the Special Image Award from the U.S. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1976. He made his last appearance in Michael Winner's Hollywood satire Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976).
A stroke in 1976 ended Perry's acting career, and he moved into the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. He died November 19, 1985 from pneumonia at age 83.