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Biography

Jump to: Overview (3) | Mini Bio (2) | Spouse (1) | Trade Mark (2) | Trivia (3) | Personal Quotes (6)

Overview (3)

Date of Birth 12 November 1874Nassau, British West Indies [now Bahamas]
Date of Death 4 March 1922New York City, New York, USA  (pneumonia and heart disease)
Birth NameWilliams Egbert Austins

Mini Bio (2)

One of the first black superstars of popular entertainment, Egbert Austin Williams, although born in the Bahamas, was raised largely in California. Nursing show business aspirations early on, he teamed with boyhood friend George Walker to form a highly successful vaudeville act, which continued until the ravages of syphilis brought about Walker's retirement and premature death in 1909. Two years later, Williams joined the Ziegfeld Follies and experienced perhaps his greatest fame as one of its' star comedians until his death. Although he played the (then) typical stereotype of the slow-witted, dialect-spouting black, and had to wear burnt cork to disguise his true ethnicity, he still managed to project an elan and style that was all his own, gently mocking the various stereotypes even as he was playing them. His recordings on American Columbia records were best-sellers in their time. An intelligent, articulate man privately, he was bitterly disappointed in a society that could applaud him onstage, yet still treat him like a second-class citizen off stage. Although he lived at one of the city's top hotels during his years in New York, he always had to ride the service elevator to his suite rather than come in by the main entrance. Ill health in his last years, primarily hypertension and lung trouble, brought about his early death at the age of only 47, while he was still a headliner. Long and happily married, he and his wife had no children but raised a niece and nephew.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Bob Sorrentino

Egbert Austin Williams, the legendary comedian, is considered by many to be the greatest vaudeville performer in the history of the American stage. His considerable success extended into the realm of musical comedy as well. Bert was born in Antigua in 1875. He had a natural sense of humor and was said to be at his best as a mimic. He had also learned to play music by ear. His family later moved to New York, and when he was 12 they moved to California.

His father was in poor health and had lost his money. So following Bert's graduation from high school, he had to abandon his civil engineering studies in college to help earn a living. He naturally turned to entertaining and went from café to café in San Francisco singing minstrel ditties and passing the hat.

Bert had developed a particular interest in the mannerisms of a certain type of peasant while in Antigua. He later shifted his attention to a similar type of African American-the humble, shiftless, slouch Negro who could neither read nor write but who had a certain hard, and not altogether inaccurate, philosophy of life. He would study this type patiently and rejoice whenever he discovered a new twist of dialect or expression. From this Bert would go on to develop an act into what became his trademark character - "Mr. Nobody" (Charlie Chaplin would later develop a white character who was similar), and the accompanying song he composed, "Nobody," became his signature work.

Even though he had natural born wit, his career was struggling. He fortunately had met a young African American, George Walker, with whom he had a natural affinity. George was even poorer than he was and could neither dance nor play. But Bert took him under his wings and groomed him as a partner. They went on to become a successful vaudeville team. They staged several shows, including Bandana Land (original sheet music photographed above) Abyssinia, and The Policy Players and had tremendous success. When George took ill, Bert continued working and shared his earnings with him until he died in 1911.

Bert continued on working alone and later joined the Ziegfeld Follies. It was the top production of its kind in America, and Bert was its highest paid star for ten years. He often had to use his "Mr. Nobody" routine to save the show's reputation.

In 1915 the Biograph Company in an unprecedented move gave Bert Williams the authority to produce, write, direct, and star in two Biograph films, the "Natural Born Gambler" 1915, and "Fish" 1916, making him the first Black-American to have full control and produce his own films for a general audience. No other film company at that time had done such a thing.

Bert Williams enjoyed full popularity until the end. While in Chicago he fell seriously ill, but continued to perform rather than have the promoter suffer financial loss. He would later suffer a complete breakdown because of this behavior to the point that even doctors could not help. He died on March 4, 1922.

Bert Williams was one of the greatest pantomimists of all time. He read many of the great literary masterpieces, and could discuss Darwin, Voltaire, Kant, and Goethe among others. It was said that next to the stage his greatest interest was the history of Africa and of his people in America and the West Indies. Booker T. Washington once modestly observed, "Bert Williams has done more for the race than I have. He has smiled his way into people's hearts. I have been obliged to fight my way."

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Frank Marks

Spouse (1)

Charlotte L. (Johnston) Thompson (21 September 1899 - 4 March 1922) (his death)

Trade Mark (2)

Although he was black, he performed in traditional blackface makeup
Theme song: "Nobody"

Trivia (3)

Joined the Ziegfeld Follies in 1911.
His pride in his ethnicity and refusal to knuckle under to the prevalent racism of his era knew no bounds. The following incident is illustrative: While still a star with the Ziegfeld Follies, he walked into a bar and ordered a drink. The bartender, hoping to discourage him, told him that the price was $50.00 a drink. Williams immediately produced a roll of hundred dollar bills from his pocket and proceeded to treat the whole room to drinks.
In 1915 the American Muroscope and Biograph Company in an unprecedented move gave Bert Williams the authority to produce, write, direct, and star in two Biograph films, A Natural Born Gambler (1916), and Fish (1916), making him the first Black-American to have full control and produce his own films for a general audience. No other film company at that time had done such a thing.

Personal Quotes (6)

[To Eddie Cantor, on the racist treatment he received] "You know, it wouldn't be so bad, Eddie, if I didn't hear that applause still ringing in my ears."
It was not until I was able to see myself as another person that my sense of humor developed. For I do not believe there is any such thing as innate humor. It has to be developed by hard work and study, just as every other human quality.
What little voice I have left has to be nursed and petted like a prize cat. I study carefully the acoustics of each theatre I appear in. There is always one particular spot on the stage from which the voice carries better, more clearly and easily than from any other. I make it my business to find that spot before the first performance, and once I find it I stick to it like a postage stamp.
Songwriters say that I am a particularly hard man to write songs for. Whenever they have a song a man can use, they seem to want a portion of his life before thy will sell it to him. They want war prices for their songs, but I have not observed any war salaries being paid to artists. The way some of them deal with me is to calculate what my income ought to be for the next ten years, and then ask ten percent of that.
Troubles are funny only when you pin them to one particular individual. And that individual, the fellow who is the goat, must be the man who is singing the song or telling the story. Then the audience can picture him in their mind's eye and see him in the thick of his misfortunes, fielding flatirons with his head, carrying large bulldogs by the seat of his pants, and picking the bare bones of the chicken while his wife's relations eat the breast.
One of the funniest sights in the world is a man whose hat has been knocked in or ruined by being blown off - provided of course it be the other fellow's hat. All the jokes in the world are based on a few elemental ideas, and this is one of them. The sight of other people in trouble is nearly always funny. This is human nature.

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