A one-time pharmacology student, James Baskett headed to New York City to become an actor. He joined Bill “Bojanges” Robinson and Louis Armstrong on Broadway in the all-black revue Hot Chocolates in 1929. When the musical Hummin’ Sam failed to open, James turned to motion pictures, with bit parts in comedies and horror films. He joined the cast of the popular radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy, playing the role of attorney Gabby Gibson.
In 1945, James auditioned for a voice-over role in an ambitious new film that would combine live action and animation called Song of the South. The studio’s head Walt Disney was so impressed with James’ reading that he hired him on the spot for the film’s lead role and narrator Uncle Remus. James also voiced the animated antagonist Brer Fox. Although he was later criticized for the demeaning role, James’ portrayal of “Uncle Remus” was one of Hollywood’s first non-comedic black characters. Due to strict segregation in the South, James was prohibited from attending the film’s Atlanta premiere. However, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rewarded James with an honorary Oscar.
James battled diabetes and general poor health during the filming of Song of the South. After the film wrapped, he suffered a heart attack. He missed many episodes of Amos ‘n’ Andy, ultimately passing away during the show’s summer hiatus. Despite his appearance, he was only 44 years old.