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Carter, Ben (1907-1946)

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Actor-turned casting agent Ben Carter often portrayed an obliging domestic in Hollywood films, but later became one of the few African American agents in the movie capital dedicated to promoting and enhancing the careers of some of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors and actresses of color – including Hattie McDaniel, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Lena Horne, and the Dandridge Sisters.

Born in 1907, the Fairfield, Iowa native began his career as a comedian and Broadway performer in New York.  He relocated to Los Angeles in the early 1930s and first worked as an unbilled player in movies. By the mid-1930s, Carter had become one of the first African American performers to sign a seven-year contract with 20th Century-Fox studios. Known for his wiry hair and bugged eyes, Carter appeared in several movies over a two-decade period, including Gone With the Wind (1939), Maryland (1940), Tin Pan Alley (1940), and several of Monogram Studio’s Charlie Chan series. In addition to frequently appearing in films, Carter earned a less than reputable name for himself due to his demeaning film roles.

By the early 1940s, inspired by NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White’s ongoing efforts to alter the negative images Hollywood routinely presented of the black race through stereotypical roles, and realizing that African American performers needed representation, Carter focused on building the careers of African American performers by opening a booking agency in New York City. Carter simultaneously moved toward rehabilitating his own tarnished image by appearing in non-stereotypical roles, such as the 1943 classic Crash Dive in which he portrayed the multi-faceted character of a guardian angel, close friend, and steward.

Carter was also a World War II-era civil rights activist working primarily in Los Angeles.  Ben Carter who suffered from diphtheria, died in 1946 following a long illness.

Sources:
Susan McHenry, “The Black Side of the Early Silver Screen,” Essence, April 2001; Anonymous, “Notables Attend Final Rites of Ben Carter, Noted Actor,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 28, 1946; Donald Bogle, Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography (New York: Amistad Press Inc., 1997.

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Independent Historian

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