Harold George Belafonte, Jr., in New York City, 1 March 1927.
Studied at Irwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop at the New School
for Social Research, 1946–48, Actors Studio, and the American Negro
U.S. Navy, 1943–45.
Married Marguerite Byrd (divorced); two daughters, Adrienne and Shari
Belafonte (actress); married dancer Julie Robinson, 8 March 1957; son,
David, and daughter, Gina Belafonte (actress).
Became a member of the American Negro Theater in New York, 1948; appeared
regularly on the CBS black variety show
Sugar Hill Times
, 1949; first appeared on Broadway, 1953; film debut in
, 1953; recording artist with RCA, 1954–73; popularized calypso
music with the release of his album
, 1956; formed his own television production company, 1959; first African
American to star in a television special, 1960; president, Belafonte
Enterprises Inc.; became goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, 1986.
Tony Award, for
, 1953; Emmy Award, for
Tonight with Belafonte
, 1960; Grammy Awards, for
We Are the World
, 1985; recipient of Kennedy Center Honors, 1989; National Medal of Arts
Award, 1994; New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor,
, 1996; Chairman's Award, NAACP, 1999; numerous honorary doctorates
and humanitarian awards.
Belafonte Enterprises Inc., 830 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10019, USA.
Bright Road (Mayer) (as school principal)
Carmen Jones (Preminger) (as Joe)
Island in the Sun (Rossen) (as David Boyeur)
The World, The Flesh, and the Devil (MacDougall) (as Ralph Burton); Odds Against Tomorrow (Wise) (as Johnny Ingram)
King: A Filmed Record. . . Montgomery to Memphis (doc)(narrator), The Angel Levine (Kadár) (as Alexander Levine)
Buck and the Preacher (Poitier) (as the Preacher)
Uptown Saturday Night (Poitier) (as Geechie Dan Beauford); Free to Be You & Me (Davis, Steckier) (as himself)
Grambling's White Tiger (Brown—for TV) (as Eddie Robinson)
A veces miro mi vida (Rojas) (as himself)
We Shall Overcome (Brown) (doc) (narrator)
Eyes on the Prize II (Shearer—for TV) (doc) (as himself)
The Player (Altman) (as himself)
Prêt-à-Porter ( Ready to Wear ) (Altman) (as himself)
White Man's Burden (Nakano) (as Thaddeus Thomas)
Jazz '34 ( Robert Altman's Jazz '34 ) (Altman) (as narrator); Danny Kaye: A Legacy of Laughter (Marty—for TV) (doc)(as himself); Kansas City (Altman) (as Seldom Seen)
Swing Vote (Anspaugh—for TV) (as Will)
The Affair (for TV)
Parting the Waters (miniseries—for TV)
Interview in Interview (New York), September 1996.
Shaw, Arnold, Belafonte: An Unauthorized Biography , New York, 1960.
Null, Gary. Black Hollywood: The Negro in Motion Pictures , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1975.
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, "Belafonte's Balancing Act" (two-part series), in New Yorker , 26 August 1996 and 2 September 1996.
Case, Brian, "Reigning Blows," in Time Out (London), no. 1370, 20 November 1996.
* * *
Harry Belafonte, born in Harlem to a Jamaican mother and a father from Martinique, is known as the "consummate entertainer," successful in the realms of theater, motion pictures, and the recording industry. A human rights activist, Belafonte has used his celebrity to cast a spotlight on humanitarian causes around the world, including the Civil Rights struggle of African Americans, the fight against apartheid in South Africa, and UNICEF. In motion pictures he is probably best known for his acting talents, which, combined with his physique, good looks, and voice, made him Hollywood's first African American male sex symbol.
Belafonte's first appeared in Bright Road (1953) alongside Dorothy Dandridge. He starred with her again the next year in Carmen Jones , an all-black version of George Bizet's opera, Carmen. Belafonte's popularity with female audiences crossed color lines, and Hollywood exploited it by frequently casting him in films that featured interracial romance, such as the controversial Island in the Sun. Because such stereotyping limited his acting possibilities, Belafonte turned to the recording industry, singing calypso music, a popular folk style in the Carribean. His recordings of such songs as "Matilda" and what would become his signature song, "Banana Boat Song," resulted in an American obsession with the music form. His album Calypso became the first solo album to sell over a million copies.
In 1960 Belafonte starred in a television special, becoming the first African American to do so. He did not work in motion pictures during the decade, dedicating his energies to the Civil Rights Movement. During the African American struggle for social, political, and economic equality, Belafonte helped raise funds for the Montogomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Riders and voter registration drives, and helped establish the Southern Free Theater in Mississippi. He served on the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and chaired the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fund. He also worked as an unofficial liason between the Kennedy Administration and leaders of the Movement. In 1961, he was appointed to the advisory committee of the Peace Corps.
Belafonte returned to motion pictures during the 1970s, appearing in such films as Buck and the Preacher (1971) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974) with comedian Bill Cosby. During this period, he continued his singing career, recording albums and performing, often for the benefit of numerous charities. In 1984 he became a film producer, bringing to the screen one of the first hip-hop inspired feature films, Beat Street. Belafonte continued his multifaceted career in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1985 he developed the idea for what was to become the "We Are the World Project," which brought together popular music artists such as Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen to record a single that raised over $70 million for famine relief in Africa. In 1986 he was named goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, and in 1990 served as the chair for the committee that welcomed Nelson Mandela to the United States. He received numerous awards for his humanitarian efforts.
In the 1990s Belafonte appeared regularly in the films of Robert Altman. His cameo appearances in Prêt-à-Porter and The Player allowed him to poke fun at his image as the suave black celebrity, but he played a far more substantive role in Kansas City (1996). As Seldom Seen he was a menacing gangster figure lurking in the background of the 1930s Kansas City jazz scene. The role earned him a best supporting actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle.