Leigh went on to appear in classical Broadway productions of Stevedore, Of Mice and Men, and Porgy. Whipper achieved national fame for his characterization of the Crabman of the Catfish Row in Porgy, interposing into his part the Crabman’s Song. It was later incorporated into the film version.
Leigh Whipper starred as Crooks in Of Mice and Men on Broadway and in the 1939 film. But likely you’ve never heard his name. (He doesn’t even have his own entry on Wikipedia). Regardless, he was a talented stage actor, an accomplished film star, and a barrier-breaker. Whipper was a light-skinned man, and his skin color led some to question his race. A fan of the Of Mice and Men film complained that Crooks was played by a white man. Others believed that Leigh Whipper was a white man in blackface in his films.
Whipper made his film debut as a bit player in Oscar Micheaux’s silent race films, Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) and Within Our Gates (1920).
He later starred in the Hollywood films Of Mice and Men (1939) King of the Zombies (1941) and The Oxbow Incident (1943).
The Symbol of the Unconquered
“Part One,” by William Hooker, recorded live on February 14, 2009 at The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, NY.
Percussionist William Hooker improvises to pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheauxs 1920 silent classic, The Symbol of the Unconquered.
Originally advertised as a chance to come to see the annihila¬tion of the Ku Klux Klan, the film is part of the emergence of a radical black voice in the mass media. William Hookers work is frequently grounded in a narrative context. Whether set against a silent film or anchored by a poetic theme, Hooker brings dramatic tension and human warmth to avant-garde jazz. His ability to find fertile ground for moving music in a variety of settings that obliterate genre distinctions offers a much-needed statement of social optimism in the arts.
Within Our Gates (1920) – Oscar Micheaux Silent Film
Abandoned by her fiancé, an educated negro woman with a shocking past dedicates herself to helping a near-bankrupt school for impoverished negro youths. Within Our Gates was produced and directed by Oscar Micheaux in 1919. He is considered to be the first African-American director of feature films and this is the first such film still in existence.
Cast (IMDB): Evelyn Preer as Sylvia Landry; Flo Clements as Alma Prichard; James D. Ruffin as Conrad Drebert; Jack Chenault as Larry Prichard; William Smith as Detective Philip Gentry; Charles D. Lucas as Dr. V. Vivian; Bernice Ladd as Mrs. Geraldine Stratton; Mrs. Evelyn as Mrs. Elena Warwick; William Stark as Jasper Landry; Mattie Edwards as Jasper’s Wife; Ralph Johnson as Philip Gridlestone; E.G. Tatum as Efram, Gridlestone’s Servant; Grant Edwards as Emil Landry; Grant Gorman as Armand Gridlestone; Leigh Whipper ; Jimmie Cook as (uncredited); S.T. Jacks as Reverend Wilson Jacobs (uncredited).