Versatile, charismatic African-American actor Cleavon Little was born on June 1, 1939, in Oklahoma but grew up in California and attended San Diego College. He earned a scholarship to Juilliard and moved to New York, then trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Art and was soon appearing off-Broadway. Classically trained (“Hamlet” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), he won the Tony award for a less weighty musical, “Purlie”, which took him west. A few film roles came his way with What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968), John and Mary (1969), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), and the cult film Vanishing Point (1971) but it was the 1972 sitcom The New Temperatures Rising Show (1972) that finally got him some leverage in Hollywood. The by-now popular actor caught the eye of film producers. With his sly charm and appeal, he was a natural for comedy and hit the apex of his career after winning a co-starring role opposite Gene Wilder in the Mel Brooks western spoof Blazing Saddles (1974). He never matched that success but did continue with important stage roles (“I’m Not Rappaport”) and other TV series work (Bagdad Cafe (1990)). A hard-working, heavily driven man, Little was plagued by ulcers and stomach disorders for much of his life. He died at age 53 of colon cancer in 1992.
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