James Baskett was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on February 16, 1904.
Due to financial reasons, Baskett stopped studying pharmacology and moved to New York City. He joined the company of Bill Robinson, also known as Mr. Bojangles. Baskett received much success as an actor in New York. He appeared in Broadway with Louis Armstrong in the all-black revue Hot Chocolates in 1929. He also acted in several all-black films made near New York, including Harlem is Heaven starring Bill Robinson in 1932.
After moving to LA, Baskett landed a supporting role in Straight to Heaven (1932) starring Nina Mae McKinney, and bit parts in the films Revenge of the Zombies (1943) and The Heavenly Body (1944). Baskett then met comedian Freeman Gosden and was invited to join his cast. He portrayed fast-talking lawyer Gabby Gibson in the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show from 1944-1948.
In 1945, James Baskett landed the role he would become most famous for, Uncle Remus. Baskett auditioned for the voice of the talking butterfly in the Disney feature film Song of the South (1946),based on the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris. Walt Disney personally met with Baskett and was so impressed by Baskett’s talent, he hired him on the spot for the lead role of Uncle Remus. He was the first actor to be hired by Walt Disney for a full-length, live-action film. Baskett was also given the voice role of Brer Fox, one of the film’s antagonists. In addition to the roles, Baskett sang the now well known song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” for the film. Unfortunately, Baskett was unable to attend the film’s premiere in Atlanta, GA because he would not have been allowed to participate in any of the festivities in what was then a city racially segregated by law.
On March 20. 1948, James Baskett was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for his performance as Uncle Remus. He was the first male performer of African descent to win an Academy Award.
“To James Baskett for his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the world in Walt Disney’s ‘Song of the South’.”
James Baskett died from heart disease at the age of 44 on January 9,1948. He is fondly remembered by Disney animators and was a personal favorite actor of Walt Disney. But by the years preceding 1998, the film was one of the few from their catalog which Disney would not sell and it was almost impossible to see his performance. The image of a slave singing “Plenty of sunshine heading my way” and “It’s the truth, it’s actual, Everything is satisfactual” has become offensive to many. To Baskett’s acting credit, he became a Disney Legend in 2010. His portrait hung in Crown Hill Funeral Home, until there were several compaints that the Song of the South was offensive.
James Baskett’s final resting place is in Crown Hill Cemetery, Lot 602, Section 37. As a tribute to his acting legacy, his tombstone mentions the honorary Academy Award he won.
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