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Paul Robeson Poster

Biography

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Overview (5)

Date of Birth 9 April 1898Princeton, New Jersey, USA
Date of Death 23 January 1976Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Birth NamePaul LeRoy Bustill Robeson
Nickname Robey
Height 6' 3" (1.91 m)

Mini Bio (1)

This handsome, eloquent and highly charismatic actor became one of the foremost interpreters of Eugene O'Neill's plays and one of the most treasured names in song during the first half of the twentieth century. He also courted disdain and public controversy for most of his career as a staunch Cold War-era advocate for human rights. While the backlash of his civil rights activities and left-wing ideology left him embittered and practically ruined his career, he remains today a durable symbol of racial pride and consciousness.

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 9, 1898, Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson and his four siblings (William, Benjamin, Reeve, Marian) lost their mother, a schoolteacher, in a fire while quite young (Paul was only six). Paul's father, a humble Presbyterian minister and former slave, raised the family singlehandedly and the young, impressionable boy grew up singing spirituals in his father's church. Paul was a natural athlete and the tall (6'3"), strapping high school fullback had no trouble earning a scholarship to prestigious Rutgers University in 1915 at age 17 -- becoming only the third member of his race to be admitted at the time. He excelled in football, baseball, basketball, and track and field, graduating as a four-letter man. He was also the holder of a Phi Beta Kappa key in his junior year and was a selected member of their honorary society, Cap and Skull. Moreover, he was the class valedictorian and in his speech was already preaching idealism.

Paul subsequently played professional football to earn money while attending Columbia University's law school, and also took part in amateur dramatics. During this time he met and married Eslanda Cardozo Goode in 1921. She eventually became his personal assistant. Despite the fact that he was admitted to the New York bar, Paul's future as an actor was destined and he never did practice law. His wife persuaded him to play a role in "Simon the Cyrenian" at the Harlem YMCA in 1921. This was followed by his Broadway debut the following year in the short-lived play "Taboo", a drama set in Africa, which also went to London. As a result, he was asked to join the Provincetown Players, a Greenwich Village theater group that included in its membership playwright Eugene O'Neill. O'Neill personally asked Paul to star in his plays "All God's Chillun Got Wings" and "The Emperor Jones" in 1924. The reaction from both critics and audiences alike was electrifying...an actor was born.

In 1925 Paul delivered his first singing recital and also made his film debut starring in Body and Soul (1925), a rather murky melodrama that nevertheless was ahead of its time in its depictions of black characters. Although Robeson played a scurrilous, corrupt clergyman who takes advantage of his own people, his dynamic personality managed to shine through. Radio and recordings helped spread his name across foreign waters. His resonant bass was a major highlight in the London production of "Show Boat" particularly with his powerful rendition of "Ol' Man River." He remained in London to play the role of Shakespeare's "Othello" in 1930 (at the time no U.S. company would hire him), and was again significant in a highly controversial production. Paul caused a slight stir by co-starring opposite a white actress, Peggy Ashcroft, who played Desdemona. Around this time Paul starred in the landmark British film Borderline (1930), a silent film that dealt strongly with racial themes, and then returned to the stage in the O'Neill play "The Hairy Ape" in 1931. The following year he appeared in a Broadway revival of "Show Boat" again as Joe. In the same production, the noted chanteuse Helen Morgan repeated her original 1927 performance as the half-caste role of Julie, but the white actress Tess Gardella played the role of Queenie in her customary blackface opposite Robeson.

Robeson spent most of his time singing and performing in England throughout the 1930s. He also was given the opportunity to recapture two of his greatest stage successes on film: The Emperor Jones (1933) and Show Boat (1936). In Britain he continued to film sporadically with Sanders of the River (1935), Song of Freedom (1936), King Solomon's Mines (1937), Jericho (1937) and The Proud Valley (1940) in important roles that resisted demeaning stereotypes.

During the 1930s he also gravitated strongly towards economics and politics with a burgeoning interest in social activism. In 1934 he made the first of several trips to the Soviet Union and outwardly extolled the Russian way of life and their lack of racial bias. He was a popular figure in Wales where he became personally involved in their civil rights affairs, notably the Welsh miners. Developing a marked leftist ideology, he continued to criticize the blatant discrimination he found so prevalent in America.

The 1940s was a mixture of performance triumphs and poignant, political upheavals. While his title run in the musical drama "John Henry" (1940), was short-lived, he earned widespread acclaim for his Broadway "Othello" in 1943 opposite José Ferrer as Iago and Uta Hagen as Desdemona. By this time, however, Robeson was being reviled by much of white America for his outspoken civil rights speeches against segregation and lynchings, particularly in the South. A founder of the Progressive Party, an independent political party, his outdoor concerts sometimes ignited violence and he was now a full-blown target for "Red Menace" agitators. In 1946 he denied under oath being a member of the Communist Party, but steadfastly refused to refute the accusations under subsequent probes. As a result, his passport was withdrawn and he became engaged in legal battles for nearly a decade in order to retrieve it. Adding fuel to the fire was his only son's (Paul Jr.) marriage to a white woman in 1949 and his being awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952 (he was unable to receive it until 1958 when his passport was returned to him).

Essentially blacklisted, tainted press statements continued to hound him. He began performing less and less in America. Despite his growing scorn towards America, he never gave up his American citizenship although the anguish of it all led to a couple of suicide attempts, nervous breakdowns and a dependency on drugs. Europe was a different story. The people continued to hold him in high regard as an artist/concertist above reproach. He had a command of about 20 languages and wound up giving his last acting performance in "Othello" on foreign shores -- at Stratford-on-Avon in 1959.

While still performing in the 1960s, his health suddenly took a turn for the worse and he finally returned to the United States in 1963. His poet/wife Eslanda Robeson died of cancer two years later. Paul remained in poor health for pretty much the rest of his life. His last years were spent in Harlem in near-total isolation, denying all interviews and public correspondence, although he was honored for speaking out against apartheid in South Africa in 1978.

Paul died at age 77 of complications from a stroke. Among his many honors: he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995; he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998; was honored with a postage stamp during the "Black Heritage" series; and both a Cultural Center at Penn State University and a high school in Brooklyn bear his name. In 1995 his autobiography "Here I Stand" was published in England in 1958; his son, Paul Robeson Jr., also chronicled a book about his father, "Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist's Journey" in 2001.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Gary Brumburgh / gr-home@pacbell.net

Spouse (1)

Eslanda Robeson (17 August 1921 - 13 December 1965) (her death) (1 son)

Trade Mark (2)

The song "Ol' Man River"
Powerful bass singing voice

Trivia (41)

In 1925, he sang the first concert recital consisting solely of black spirituals, at the Greenwich Village Theatre in New York.
In 1952 and 1953 he sang in defiance of the U.S. government in what is now called "The Peace Arch Concerts." These concerts, attended by over 40,000 people, are now available on CD and feature Robeson's only political speeches on record along with his signature song, "Old Man River."
The role of Joe, the deckhand, in Jerome Kern's and Oscar Hammerstein II's "Show Boat" was written for him, but because of schedule conflicts and Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.'s delay in putting on the show, he was unable to star in the first stage production and played the role in London five months later. He sang "Ol' Man River" in the show, and made the second ever recording of the song ever in 1928 (Bing Crosby did the first), the same year he starred in the show. He became so identified with it that he starred in three more productions of "Show Boat": the 1932 New York revival, the 1936 film version and a 1940 Los Angeles stage production. Although he continued singing "Ol' Man River" in every one of his solo recitals, and made at least two more recordings of the song, he began changing the lyrics after 1938 to reflect his more racially conscious views.
Elected Valedictorian of his senior class at Rutgers, 1919.
Played football professionally for three years in the APFL (American Professional Football League) 1920-1922.
Graduate of Columbia University School of Law.
Elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Rutgers in 1919.
Inducted into the Rutgers Football Hall of Fame.
Inducted into the National College Football Hall of Fame.
Robeson was twice Named All-American Football Player for Rutgers at End, in 1917 and 1918.
Robeson was only the third black person to attend Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey.
Robeson was the first black person to play football for Rutgers University.
In 1942, said he wouldn't make any more films until there were better roles for blacks.
According to the biography written by his son, Paul Robeson Jr., he had a long-term extramarital relationship with Fredi Washington. They appeared in one film together, The Emperor Jones (1933).
Was able to speak and write in over 20 languages.
In stage productions he acted William Shakespeare's "Othello" as it was written, but when he performed Othello's final speech at his concert recitals, he changed the famous phrase "one that lov'd not wisely, but too well" to "one that lov'd full wisely, but too well".
Has a black tomato variety named after him, allegedly named so by its Russian growers because he was extremely well liked in that country. (source: tomatofest.com)
Subject of 2001 Manic Street Preachers single 'Let Robeson Sing' (from the album Know Your Enemy)
Pictured on a 37¢ USA commemorative postage stamp in the Black Heritage series, issued 20 January 2004.
The 1943 Broadway production of "Othello", in which Robeson starred is, to this day, the longest-running non-musical production of a Shakespeare play ever to be staged in the United States, due almost entirely to Robeson's enormous popularity at the time. "Kiss Me Kate", inspired by "The Taming of the Shrew", "West Side Story", inspired by "Romeo and Juliet", and the musical version of "Two Gentlemen of Verona", based on Shakespeare's comedy of the same name, all ran longer, but the 1943 "Othello",a "straight" production of the play, ran for nine months at the same theatre, and then went on a highly successful U.S. tour.
In its time, the Robeson "Othello" could not have been filmed because of the racial climate of the era - a black man could not play a love scene with a white woman in a motion picture in the 1940s. In addition, Robeson was blacklisted for his political beliefs in 1950, and as a result, was not able to make any films in the U.S., or have any of his films shown in the U.S. at that time.
Although he changed the lyrics of "Ol' Man River" in 1938 to reflect his own personal and political views, and although the recordings he made of the song after 1938 use those altered lyrics, Robeson always sang the song as originally written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II in the stage productions of "Show Boat" in which he appeared, as well as in the 1936 film version (with the exception of the word 'niggers", which, in the film, was changed to "darkies").
Member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
Was the subject of the song "Paul Robeson (Born To Be Free)" by the Celtic rock group, Black 47.
The subject of the World/Inferno Friendship Society song, "Paul Robeson". Contains the rousing chorus "Speak Up/Black Out/Black Listed/Full bodied - red".
Robeson made only one stereo recording, a two volume set of his historic 1958 Carnegie Hall recital - his only appearance there. Unfortunately, the albums made from this occasion turned out to be his last. The Carnegie Hall concert has since been issued on CD, and shows him in remarkably good voice for a sixty year old singer.
He was awarded the 1953 Stalin Peace Prize by the Soviet government. He was the last one to receive it before it was renamed the Lenin Peace Prize a few years later.
In December 1937 he sang a whole night for Spanish Republican troops fighting to take the town of Teruel.
Portrayed by Avery Brooks in a 1982 revival of the 1976 theater production about his life.
Appeared in a World War II-era U.S. Government War Department propaganda film aimed at combating the spread of venereal diseases among black soldiers. The film was called "Easy to Get" (serial number T.F.8 1423), and Robeson appears at the end in his capacity as a celebrity football star and singer to advise viewers to stay "clean.".
Portrayed by James Earl Jones in a 1976 theatre production about his life. Jones sang in the production, despite the fact that he does not possess a real "singer's voice". This one-man show was eventually telecast on PBS.
He was elected into the 2008 New Jersey Hall of Fame for his contributions to History.
His father was William Drew Robeson, a minister. His mother was Maria Louisa Bustill (? - 1904).
Nearly died from double pneumonia and a blocked kidney in 1965.
Attempted suicide at a party in 1961. His son Paul Robeson Jr. believes his father had been drugged by the CIA.
Although he did give a few interviews on television, he never played any dramatic or musical roles in that medium.
Was investigated by the California Senate's Fact Finding Committee on Un-American Activities (colloquially known as the "Tenney Committee" after Committee Chairman Jack Tenney). The Tenney Committee investigated alleged communists in California.
He was captain of the Rutgers debating team.
He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Played professional Football for the Akron Pros and Milwaukee Badgers.
[Elisabeth Welch on co-star Paul Robeson]: There were no lines he objected to in "Song of Freedom." In later years he was very nasty in that film "Sanders of the River." He said they had tricked him into that. I don't know how or why. That's his comment, but I have no evidence of it. He was a lovely man. We discussed politics naturally, but I'm not politically minded although I follow. And I have my own theories. He said you've got to be a citizen of the world because of this... (she points to the color of her skin.} I said I've got so many bloods in me, I'm part of the world. I don't stand up for one or the other, only for what's right... for decency. He wanted to convert me, but he was very gentle about it. I'll take anybody's arguments if they have a sense of humor with it. And, of course, he laughed so easily. We became great friends. I loved him, and he always came to see me when I was playing.

Personal Quotes (1)

I shall take my voice wherever there are those who want to hear the melody of freedom or the words that might inspire hope and courage in the face of fear. My weapons are peaceful, for it is only by peace that peace can be attained. The song of freedom must prevail.

Salary (2)

Body and Soul (1925) $100 /week+3% of gross over $40,000
The Emperor Jones (1933) $15,000

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