Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was a famous dancer and actor on vaudeville and in movies during the first half of the 20th Century. He’s best known for his roles with Shirley Temple, especially their stair dance in The Little Colonel.
I watched that movie and enjoyed it, although Temple’s acting and dancing at age 7 was the most impressive part.
I also watched Stormy Weather, a showcase of African-American talent halfway through the 20th Century. Robinson was 65 at the time, so his performance was rather subdued—although he played the lead and love interest of Lena Horne, who was 26.
I also read Mr. Bojangles, by Jim Haskins and N.R. Mitgang, a biography of Robinson’s life. It alluded to, but didn’t go into many details about, his chronic gambling, fights, and inability to read. He was married three times. The two wives that divorced him did so because he was never home and gambled away all his money.
On the flip side, he was loved by everyone and ready to help anyone in need. He was the first African American artist to become popular with White audiences. He constantly fought for basic rights for African Americans without being contentious. His funeral in 1949 (he died at the age of 71) attracted a huge audience and was paid for by Ed Sullivan.
And, as a side note, he invented and popularized the word “copacetic.” He was also famous for being able to win running races while running backwards.