I knew Jimmy Edwards very well. We were great friends the last five years of his life.
I met James Edwards when I auditioned for a play he was directing: "Haiti" by W. E. B. Du Bois. This was in
January, 1965. He cast me in a good part, thinking I was older than I was.
After a rehearsal one night, a bunch of us were hanging out and talking under the marquee of the theater. I
chanced to mention my uncle, Wallace Ford, and Edwards said, "Your uncle is Wally Ford?"
I said, "You know him? Did you guys work together?"
"You ask your uncle Wally if he knows James Edwards!” He went on,” Wally was in my first picture and he was
wonderful to me. I've always loved him. I wrote a western called “Silent Thunder” and I wrote a part for Wally,
the part of Waco. I sold it, it wound up being done as it Desilu Playhouse, they changed my script all around,
but, there was still so much of Wally in the role of Waco that he got the part. You tell Wally Jimmy Edwards
sends his love."
Jim and I weren't friends yet, but, from that moment I was accepted into his extended family.
Jim never showed me any favoritism, he was wonderful to all his actors in that cast. He taught all of us. He was
always there for all of us. A few of the actors were his friends from earlier times. My friendship with James
Edwards began the day that several of us actors and he took a truck over to the MGM Studios to pick up the
sets and costumes which they were loaning to the production of "Haiti."
That day, Jimmy and I talked movies and theater and cowboys as we went through the prop and costume
departments of MGM, borrowing whatever we needed for the play. This was before MGM had sold off anything.
A lot of the larger set pieces were on the back lot so we had to walk and drive around the Andy Hardy Street,
the Meet Me in St. Louis street, the train station from the Bandwagon, the Showboat. It was quite a day for all
Soon after, I mentioned to some of the guys that I was auditioning for a very big agency, GAC. Jimmy was with
GAC at that time. He told me to come by his house to work the scene. He coached me and I made a strong
impression and they signed me. Now, I was friends with Edwards, his wife Everdinne, and their baby, Eugia.
One day, I showed up at rehearsal with a production photo from "the Set Up," Jimmy's first movie, and both he
and Wally Ford were in the shot. I actually wanted to keep it. Only brought it in for show and tell. But Jim really
loved it and I gave it to him. A little later, he asked me if I thought I could find any other stills of him from his
pictures. He showed me a scrapbook he was putting together for his little girl. One evening, we were hanging
out and babysitting Eugia and he ran through his movie credits as I wrote down the titles.
As he went down the list, I was stunned at the number of absolutely world-class, top directors he had worked
with. Zinneman, Kubrick, Wise, Frankenheimer, Milestone, Minnelli, Robson, Dymytrik, Sam Fuller. I could go
on. I think, that at that time, I had only seen a few of his movies: “The Caine Mutiny,” “the Killing,” “Home of the
Brave” and “Steel Helmet.” I was 10 when I saw “Caine Mutiny” and 13 when I saw “The Killing” in the movie
theaters. “Home of the Brave” showed up on television fairly often in the late '50s and early '60s and I found
myself watching it every time it was on. This was before I ever knew Edwards.
Looking back, I believe Edwards was as brilliant an actor as Brando and Clift. Imagine, if you can, that after
Marlon made his film debut in “The Men” and Clift appeared in “The Search,” that they, like Edwards, never
played anything else but supporting roles for the rest of their careers. That they never played romantic
characters in romantic relationships. Still, Edwards always made the most of what he was given. He brought his
heart and soul to every role he played. And he was one of the most splendid exponents of what they call "the
method." Not to say he was a product of the Actors Studio. He had never been part of the Studio. But, he was
part of the postwar movement toward realism and Kazan had directed him in "Deep are the Roots." In fact,
Edwards had assistant stage managed that play under Kazan before taking over the lead for the national tour.
Like many of Jimmy Edwards' well-meaning friends, I took umbrage at roles that I thought were not good enough
for him like the mess steward in “Caine Mutiny.” Jimmy would have none of it. That character was as real a guy
to him as Peter Moss in “Home of the Brave,” or the main character in Genet's “The Blacks” on stage. He
brought the same life to all his roles. All his characterizations were thoughtful, had depth and flesh and blood.
The mess steward had a name. It was Whitaker and to hear Jimmy talk about that role you would have thought
the whole movie was about Whitaker. Same heartfelt approach to everything he did.
There was more than that. A friend, Joel Oliansky, who had seen Edwards star in “Nat Turner” in New York
around '53, told me, "He was solid electricity." Joel later wrote a part for Jimmy in his play "Bedford Forrest" and
had the thrill of seeing Jimmy play the role in a production at the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theatre. And,
according to Joel, he was solid electricity then, too.
For years, Jimmy and some fellow actors took plays to churches. One of the ones they did was Jean-Paul
Sartre's “No Exit,” a play about hell. In this hell, this play, the people never blink their eyes. And Jimmy didn’t
blink within eyesight of the audience for the two hours he was onstage. He had that kind of concentration.
Jimmy Edwards would do anything to help a friend. Actually, Jimmy would do whatever he could for anyone but
he would go to hell and back for a friend.
He was a workaholic. He was a talented writer. During the five years I knew him, he was always writing. He
doctored scripts and wrote treatments at Wolper Productions the last couple of years of his life. He taught
acting. He directed and acted in plays. Acted on TV and in films. He worked as he lived, intensely.
I compared James Edwards with Brando and Clift. He actually reminded me more of John Barrymore and Errol
Flynn. Jimmy had an intoxicating effect on women and they on him. Like Barrymore and Flynn, Edwards was
also an alcoholic. Back in those days, so many of the people who worked in Hollywood were hard drinking
World War Two veterans, that Jimmy didn't particularly stand out. At least not to me. The guys might say he
was a drinker. Honestly, in those days, alcohol fueled a good portion of the movie industry. He also reminds me
of Barrymore and Flynn because they were great actors, each revolutionary in his way.
Six weeks before Jimmy died, he stopped drinking—on a dime, cold turkey. Many of his friends saw him during
those weeks. He was so at peace. He looked young and healthy. Bud Moss, his agent, thought things were
going to break for him. I thought he might get that Oscar he was robbed of— you know, a great supporting role
in a hit film. My God, what an actor he was. It could have happened.
George Scott got nominated for best actor for Patton just after Jim died. He spurned the nomination, of course,
but told the L.A. Times, "Maybe I'll accept the Oscar in James Edwards' name. He deserved the Oscar 20 years
ago and Sidney Poitier knows it."
I have a thousand James Edwards stories—maybe more— but I will tell two. The first took place on the movie lot
which had been Republic and was Four-Star at the time. Jimmy was guest starring on a show called "Amos
Burke, Secret Agent" which starred Gene Barry. Edwards was playing a CIA man working under cover as a
shoeshine stand owner (and operator). The camera and lights and crew were just starting their move over to
the shoeshine stand set and Jim and Gene walked over to the set and started running their lines. Gene sat in
the chair and Jimmy slapped polish on his shoes with his hand. A tour group of French film buffs happened by
as Jimmy was getting into it, poppin' the rag and all, and Gene, Jimmy, and I (who happened to be visiting)
heard one say, "My God, is that James Edwards? Shining SHOES?"
Maybe, in a way, it wasn't really funny, but we laughed. I laughed just now thinking about it.
The other story isn't funny at all. The day Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was very distraught. He was a
particular hero of mine. I worried about the future. I went by the Wolper building on the Sunset Strip and
walked up to the third floor where Jim was writing in a little cubbyhole they had given him. I said, "How you
He answered, "Fine. How about you?" he told me to sit down while he finished writing the page he was on. I let
him work. Then he began to chat and I realized he hadn't heard. I said, "You haven't heard the news." He said,
"No, what?" and I told him.
We sat there in silence. I had walked in stunned and now he was too. He threw down his pencil and said, "I
can't work anymore." Then, he picked his pencil up and said, "No, I'm going to keep working. That's what he'd
want me to do."
He tried to write some more but couldn't and asked me if I'd give him a lift home. He, Everdinne and Eugia were
living at the Monticeto Hotel, which was always full of actors, mostly from New York. As we pulled up to the hotel,
the news was playing Martin Luther King's last speech. We sat there and heard Dr. King saying, "Well, I don't
know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because
I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its
place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the
mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to
know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about
anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
By the end of that year, I was in Vietnam. I got a couple of wonderful letters from Edwards. They were positive
and uplifting. He was like that. He wrote that war is evil, we know that, but that mankind was still working its way
toward the good. He told me to look through the evil and find the good. He wrote, "Forget the past, kid, it's
over. Don't tried to figure the future, you can't. The only acceptable time is now. If you are alive at all, you are
in eternity— now." That was just the kind of methody actor advice I needed.
It is 38 years since James Edwards died and it still seems to me as if it happened yesterday. I can still hear
Everdinne's voice telling me, "Patrick, Jimmy died this evening." When I got that call on January 4th, 1970, I had
only been back from Vietnam three months. It had been a tough couple of years for me. Martin Luther King,
Bobby Kennedy, a year in Vietnam and then, Jimmy died.
Jimmy's family and friends were all devastated.
I talked with Jim a great deal about acting. I discussed some of his roles with him. I watched “Home of the
Brave” and “the Manchurian candidate” on TV with him. I rented “Member of the Wedding” on 16 mm and ran it
for some fellow student actors and Jimmy came by and watched it with us.
He told me about working in the Federal Theater when he was still in his teens. After the war, he seriously
pursued acting. I believe he told me that his first professional job was as the chair pusher in “the Skin of our
Teeth.” I don't know if it was the very next thing that he did, but, he starred in an all black production of “Death
Takes a Holiday.” At some point thereafter, he assistant stage managed “Deep Are the Roots” which was
directed by Elia Kazan. He also understudied the lead and when the play went on tour, he took over the part.
His leading lady was Gene Kelly's wife, Betsy Blair.
There were various racist incidents on the tour. In Minneapolis, there was a problem with local politicians who
didn't want to see an interracial cast on the local stage. I think that's what Jim said it was. The mayor of
Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, was a complete anti-racist and, like Jim, a strict integrationist. Humphrey
defended the production, came to see it, and visited with the cast. Jimmy always loved him. Jim met a lot of
people on that tour including Einstein.
When "Deep Are the Roots" played the El Capitan Theater Los Angeles (this is not the theater on Hollywood
Boulevard. In those days, the current El Capitan was called the Paramount and the theater that later became
the Hollywood Palace was the El Capitan), Jimmy stayed in Gene Kelly and Betsy Blair's guest house. He was
signed by an agent named Lee Kramer, who was Stanley Kramer's brother.
Jim's first film was “the Set Up” directed by Robert Wise. My uncle, Wally Ford, was in Jimmy's first big shot.
Wally is a dressing room attendant and Jimmy is a young fighter who is on his way up. Wally is taping Jim's
hands and Jim, as Luther Hawkins, is telling him what he's going to do after he wins this fight.
When I told my uncle Wally that Jimmy Edwards sent his love and told him I was working for Jim in a play, Wally
spoke with great affection of Edwards then said, "I shouldn’t tell you this, but, Jimmy was scared to death that
first day. We started working with each other and it got good. He relaxed.”
Jimmy told me it was true. He was terrified and Wally got him laughing, and he and Wally grooved in his first shot
in his first film. My uncle, Wallace Ford, was one of the most anti-racist human beings I ever knew. He told me
that the greatest black actor he had worked with was Charles Gilpen, the actor who created the role of O'Neill's
“The Emperor Jones.” Wally had worked with him in John Drinkwater's “Abraham Lincoln.” When he told me
that Gilpen had to enter the theater through the basement door and dress and make up in the theater
basement, Wally's eyes welled with tears. Later that year, he teared up when he told me, "A black man is going
to win the Academy Award tonight."
He was talking about Sidney Poitier.
Wally co-starred in one of Sydney's movies: "A Patch of Blue.” Wally also co-starred in a movie with Paul
Robeson in which he and Robeson enjoy an on-screen relationship that is way ahead of its time. They are
almost doing a black and white Hope and Crosby. The movie was "Jericho." Henry Wilcoxin was in it too and he
and Wally proved they were good guys. No racist would have appeared in that picture in those bigoted,
separate but equal, Jim Crow times.
When Jimmy told me that his second movie was a film called “Manhandled,” I told him I'd never seen it. He ran
through the cast for me, Dorothy Lamour and Alan Napier were in it ,he said. And he ran through the plot. He
played a butler. He talked about the scene where the police interrogate him. I only mention this because from
his description of the character he played, I assumed he had much more screen time than it turned out he had.
Really, it was only a line or two. Much as a method actor such as Jimmy might want to be a star, he was always
much more concerned about the inner life of a character. As always with his characterizations, that butler was a
real human being.
Edwards next film was “Home of the Brave.” It turns out to be the film he was born to make, the role that was his
destiny. He was intensely proud of it. I know that because I watched it with him and he just delighted in his
fellow actors performances and Tiompkin's score and the points the movie made. We were watching “Home of
the Brave” on television in 1966 when things were changing. He didn't allude to the social and political
pressures that were placed on him at that time. He just enjoyed the film.
At the time that James Edwards was one of the most dynamic young actors in the world, while he worked a lot,
the racists, the segregationists, and the anti-communists were always hot on his heels. I think perhaps the
culmination of that was what occurred during the production of “Red Ball Express.” Jimmy was co-starring in the
movie with Jeff Chandler when he was called to testify before the HUAC. Jim refused to testify saying, through
his lawyer, that he had never been a member of the Communist Party and felt he could contribute nothing
through his testimony. He had been on “Red Ball Express” for three weeks. Immediately following his rebuff of
the HUAC, he was fired from the picture and replaced over the weekend with Sidney Poitier.
There seems to be a bit of confusion as to whether Edwards was fired before or after he began filming. He had
been in front of the camera for three weeks on and off and those scenes had to be reshot with Sidney. I found
this out after Jim died. That time he had been running through his screen credits for me chronologically. he
included “Red Ball Express.” I said, "You were in Red Ball Express?" and he chuckled that gravelly chuckle of
his and said, "Oh I was in “Red Ball Express." Next time that movie was on TV, I scoured it for any sign of Jimmy.
He wasn't there. He never alluded to the reason he wasn't there.
I believe that the HUAC had nothing on James Edwards politically. He was absolutely a patriotic American. I am
positive, though, that the committee was out to destroy him for being an integrationist. And they could destroy
him just for being Jimmy. I believe that Jim made the right move in ducking the committee, but, the results were
devastating to his career. He belonged to the NAACP and to CORE which were generally regarded back then
as organizations which were subversive to the American way.
Everywhere Jim went, in Hollywood and in other places, he was the first black person many people had ever
seen in their neighborhoods and their workplaces in something other than a subservient job. I can't tell you how
true this was. Lloyd Bridges was telling Robert Hays about the political climate in the '50s. Lloyd was blacklisted
because he had belonged to the West Coast Group Theater. Anyway, he told Hays that he actually lived in a
fairly hip neighborhood up in Nichols Canyon in the Hollywood hills. "But," he told Hays, "When I had a black
friend come to dinner, the neighbors called the police. My friend was an actor, driving a nice car, but the well-
meaning neighbors, sensing trouble, called the cops." The actor friend was Jim.
The shocking thing is that when Jim and I were friends in the '60s, that was still true. When Jim and his family
moved to Laurel Canyon in 1965, they were the first black family that had ever lived in that neighborhood. And
Laurel Canyon was a pretty hip place or was supposed to be.
Jim's work in “Bright Victory” and in “Member of the Wedding” has been written about (finally) but I would just
add that in each of those roles, Jim is that guy he's playing. One's a blinded war hero and one is a musician who
likes to make music, get a little high, and who hates the repressive society that is smothering him. I would just
like to add that one night Jim was hanging out with me and a few other actors and I asked about how he had
played a blind man, had he used contact lenses?
He told us that Arthur Kennedy used contacts (Jim called him Johnny Kennedy) and that he had tried them but
they hurt too much. He approached it a different way. He used his senses, but, not his sight. Well, he did it for
us. Jesus, it was wonderful. He was the finest actor I ever saw.
Jim always wanted to write and direct. He did write for movies and television and he directed many stage
productions, but, one of his main ambitions was to direct in film. At one time, Otto Preminger made James
Edwards his protege and they worked together on “Carmen Jones.” Among his other assignments, Jimmy
played opposite the actresses who were screen tested. Preminger got nasty. He invariably did. He spoke to
Jimmy in a way which was completely unacceptable to Jimmy. So, Jimmy grabbed a camera handle and chased
him around the set. The apprenticeship was over.
There were other projects that didn't come to pass, at least not for Jimmy. Over a period of three years, Jim
played what was to become the Sidney Poitier role in “the Defiant Ones” for various potential backers and in
workshopping the script. Joe Mankewicz put Jimmy on a stipend and told him to build himself up to two hundred
pounds. He wanted Jim to play Cleopatra's closest advisor—in Shaw's play the character is Apollodorus. Jim
worked out for three months and got up to 200. Solid muscle from head to toe. Mankewicz had him strip down to
gym shorts for the Fox execs. Everybody seemed to love the idea of Jim in the role. Then, the word came down.
The producers didn't want a negro that close to Liz. Everybody got rich on that picture while Jimmy doctored
scripts and did guest stars.
I saw James Edwards act several times. The most memorable was a scene in an episode of "Mannix," a
Paramount TV series about a private detective played by Michael Connors. I had been home from Vietnam
about two weeks and I had by no means stopped shaking, but, it was time to see Jimmy and I called the number
I had for Everdinne in San Diego. It was great to hear her voice. She knew I was back-- my mother had called
her when she knew I was coming home. She told me Jimmy was in town, on the Paramount lot.
I drove over to Paramount and told the guard at the gate I was just back from Vietnam and I wanted to surprise
my best friend who was working on "Mannix." This was September, 1969, and the guy let me go on the lot. I
slipped into the sound stage and onto the set. Jimmy and I had a joyful reunion and he introduced me to Corey
Allen, who was directing. I had not met Corey, but, Jimmy had spoken of him many times. I knew of him from his
many acting roles, particularly "Buz" in "Rebel Without a Cause." He and Jimmy went back a long way. At one
point, they produced two one-act plays at a theater in Hollywood. Corey directed Jimmy in one and Jimmy
directed Corey in the other.
It was getting close to time to shoot a long, rather difficult, master shot. It was melodrama of the first order.
Mannix has been shot, nicked in the head, and it has caused him to go blind. Jimmy was playing a therapist
who has come to the detective's apartment to teach him to navigate in darkness. Jim and Michael Connors
played this difficult scene with breathtaking power and grace. Everyone on the set applauded spontaneously
when Corey said, "Cut."
I said to Corey, "I've been at war for a year. I've wondered what it would be like when I returned to the movie
business. So I stumbled onto this set to greet a friend just in time to see the most beautifully executed master
take I've ever seen. This was my welcome home." Jimmy was standing there. He was proud. He and Mike
Connors had nailed it. Corey said, "Come on. You've got to tell Mike," and he took me over to tell Mike what I
had told him.
That was just about the last time James Edwards acted. And I had gotten back from Vietnam in just time to see
it. Ten years later, I found myself auditioning for the role of a murder victim in a movie of the week pilot which
Corey Allen was directing. I reminded him of that day. It meant as much to him as it did to me. I got the part
and when I came on to the set, Corey walked up to me and said, "We're working together at last," and shook my
Back around that time, I found myself working with Gene Evans. I told him the same thing I had told George C.
Scott: "I was a friend of Jimmy Edwards. In fact, I can honestly say he loved me as much as he loved you." and
Gene said, as George had, "I loved him."
I think Jimmy is kind of a patron saint to some aficionados of method acting. I mean, we can watch Edwards in
all these diverse roles, bringing life, giving words on paper flesh and blood to live in for a while. Flesh, blood,
heart and soul; there they are, those people he played. And it's there in everything he did. In Moira Finnie's
wonderful article about Jim on the Movie Morlocks website, Miss Finnie mentions that Edwards played a
messenger in a Tarzan knockoff in the '50s. Actually, if I am thinking of the same movie, it actually is a Tarzan
movie, but, Jim isn't playing a a messenger. He is playing the most Methody, in the moment, flesh and blood,
near Shakespearean, witch doctor you ever saw.
It doesn't matter what the movie or television show happens to be, and it doesn't matter whether it's any good or
not. If Edwards is in it, he will deliver, and those of us who have an almost religious attachment to the acting
values exemplified by James Edwards and some of his contemporaries can take delight in it.
|James Edwards, Pioneer Black Actor
Awhile back, I found myself face-to-face with Quentin
Tarantino as he was sort of being swept past me by an
ocean of admirers. I shook his hand and congratulated
him on the movie he had just premiered, Kill Bill One. I
told him that if I ever had five minutes to talk with him I
would talk about James Edwards in "Steel Helmet."
"James Edwards? The black actor?"
I smiled, "Yeah. "
Tarantino said "Marvelous actor!" and as the crowd swept
us apart, he turned and looked over everybody's heads
and said again, "Marvelous actor!"
Lately, I've been hearing and reading some very nice
things about James Edwards. A lady named Moira Finnie
wrote a marvelous article about him called "Someone
Must Make a Stand" (a quote from the movie "Home of
the Brave”). I heard Donald Bogle call him "an unsung
hero." And in his commentary for “The Manchurian
Candidate," the late John Frankenheimer simply says
when Edwards appears on the screen, "Jimmy Edwards
was an actor that I had wanted to work with for years and
More and more of his movies and television shows have
shown up on dvd, and people are re-discovering the
artistry of James Edwards. Marvelous actor!
|Photo taken 1969. He was often at his desk,
writing, with Sinatra on the record player.