Tony Winner Harry Belafonte Passes Away at 96 | Playbill

Obituaries Tony Winner Harry Belafonte Passes Away at 96

The barrier-breaking performer was a fierce activist for civil rights, serving as one of the principal fundraisers for Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Harry Belafonte

Cultural icon and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte has passed away. The barrier breaking performer passed the morning of April 25 in his long time home on the Upper West Side, per longtime spokesman Ken Sunshine, who confirmed the news to the New York Times.

Born in Harlem March 1, 1927, to Jamaican and Martiniquais immigrants, Mr. Belafonte spent much of his childhood in Jamaica before returning to New York at 13. He dropped out of school to join the Navy during World War II, where his fellow Black sailors urged him to immerse himself in Black history. While stationed in Virginia, he met Marguerite Byrd, who further encouraged him. They were married in 1948.

Upon returning to New York, Mr. Belafonte found a career on the stage, both starring and composing for his Broadway debut John Murray Anderson's Almanac, for which he received both a Theatre World Award and 1954's Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. That same year, Mr. Belafonte starred in the film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein II's Carmen Jones, opposite Dorothy Dandridge. Mr. Belafonte was quick to move on from the theatrical industry, however, with 1955's 3 For Tonight proving to be his final Broadway performance credit (his concert engagement Belafonte at the Palace was performed in a Broadway theatre, but was an extension of his extensive concert touring circuit). He produced two original plays on Broadway, Moonbirds and Asinamali!, with neither running more than 30 performances.

Mr. Belafonte was a fierce force for change throughout his life, breaking through segregationist boundaries with his Caribbean infused hit records, such as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” and as the first Black actor to achieve major leading man success on the Hollywood screen. While Mr. Belafonte was not the first Black performer to cross these boundaries (he was always quick to acknowledge the strides made by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald), he captured the attention of the general public indelibly, with his album Calypso topping the Billboard Charts for 31 weeks in 1956, making him potentially the first artist to sell more than a million copies of a single record.

By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles. He soon relinquished his matinee idol crown to lifelong friend Sidney Poitier, but never faded from the entertainment industry entirely, continuing to perform and release music well into the 21st century. 

His primary focus, however, had become the civil rights movement. 

Early in his career, Mr. Belafonte had become close friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to whom he remained fiercely loyal until King's untimely assassination. Mr. Belafonte provided significant sums of money to the bail funds that freed Dr. King and other civil rights activists throughout the movement, as well as putting up seed money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He participated in 1963's March on Washington, turned his apartment into a refuge for Dr. King and his family when they were in New York, and it was Mr. Belafonte who took out a life insurance policy for Dr. King in order to support Dr. King's family should the unthinkable come to pass, as it did in 1968.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being interviewed by actor and activist Harry Belafonte and community news director at WLIB radio, New York George Goodman Austin Hansen/ Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections

On television, Mr. Belafonte became a familiar presence, with his special Tonight With Belafonte winning an Emmy in 1960. A deal to produce five more specials soon fell apart, however, when sponsor Revlon insisted he not perform alongside white performers on screen. In 1968, sponsor Chrysler-Plymouth demanded a retake after Mr. Belafonte and Petula Clark made physical contact on screen while performing together; producer Steve Binder refused, and the brief touch remained in the special, marking one of the first moments of physical contact between a Black and white performer on television.

In the 1980s, Mr. Belafonte helped to organize a cultural boycott of South Africa, including the Live Aid concert and the all-star recording of “We Are the World," and in 1987 he replaced Danny Kaye as UNICEF’s good-will ambassador. He received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1989, the National Medal of Arts in 1994, and the Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2000. In 2013, he was the Grand Marshal of the New York City Pride Parade, and in 2014, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In 2011, a documentary film centered on Mr. Belafonte, Sing Your Song, was released, alongside the publishing of his autobiography, My Song. He remained politically active until the end, writing op-eds for the New York Times against Donald J. Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

Mr. Belafonte is survived by his two children with Ms. Byrd, Adrienne Biesemeyer and Shari Belafonte; his two children by Julie Robinson, Gina Belafonte and David; and eight grandchildren. His third wife, Pamela Frank, survives him, as do his stepchildren, Sarah and Lindsey.

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