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Mantan Moreland (September 3, 1902 – September 28, 1973) was an American actor and comedian most popular in the 1930s and 1940s.
He was born in Monroe, Louisiana, to Frank, an old-time Dixieland bandleader, and Marcella.
Moreland began acting by the time he was an adolescent; some sources say he ran away to join a minstrel show in 1910, at age eight, but his daughter told Moreland's biographer she doubts this date is correct. She and other sources agree it is more likely he left home when he was fourteen.
After "nearly ten years of working the small, small time", Moreland gained an opportunity in 1927 when he was hired as a comedian in Connie's Inn Frolics in Harlem. He next worked in the musical revue Blackbirds of 1928, which ran for 518 performances.
By the late 1920s, Moreland had made his way through vaudeville, working with various shows and revues, performing on Broadway and touring Europe. Initially, Moreland appeared in low-budget "race movies" aimed at African-American audiences, including One Dark Night (1939) with Bette Treadville, but as his comedic talents became recognized, he appeared in larger productions.
Monogram Pictures signed Moreland to appear opposite Frankie Darro in the studio's popular action pictures. Moreland, with his bulging eyes and cackling laugh, quickly became a favorite supporting player in Hollywood movies. He is perhaps best known for his role as chauffeur Birmingham Brown in Monogram's Charlie Chan series. At the height of his career, Moreland received steady work from major film studios, as well as from independent producers who starred Moreland in low-budget, all-black-cast comedies.
In 1940's Drums of the Desert, Moreland played a more serious role as the sergeant in charge of a squad of Senegalese Tirailleurs in French colonial Algeria alongside Ralph Byrd, known for appearing in Republic Pictures' Dick Tracy serials.
Moreland also toured America in vaudeville, making personal appearances in the nation's movie theaters. His straight man was Ben Carter, and they developed an excellent rapport and impeccable timing. Their "incomplete sentence" routines can be seen in two Charlie Chan pictures, The Scarlet Clue and Dark Alibi.
Moreland was offered fewer roles in the 1950s, when filmmakers began to reassess roles given to black actors. He was briefly considered as a possible addition to the Three Stooges when Shemp Howard died in 1955. Moreland returned to the stage and appeared in two all-black variety films in 1955, with Nipsey Russell standing in for Ben Carter as his straight man.
Later career and death
Moreland's last featured role was in the 1968 darkly humorous horror film Spider Baby (filmed in 1964), which was patterned after Universal's thrillers of the 1940s. After suffering a stroke in the early 1960s, Moreland took on a few minor comedic roles, working with Bill Cosby, Moms Mabley and Carl Reiner. He later partnered with Roosevelt Livingood to form the comedic team of Mantan and Livingood. Producing a number of recorded albums
Bamboozled, a 2000 film directed by Spike Lee, centers around a fictional television show called "Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show" featuring stereotypes of minstrel theater and starring a tap dancing character, played by Savion Glover, named Mantan.
B-Boys Makin with the Freak Freak, a song performed by Beastie Boys on their 1994 album Ill Communication, samples a line from Mantan's comedy album, That Ain't My Finger referencing a bit about a party and the mashed potatoes.
Michael H. Price - Mantan the Funnyman (2007), a biography of Moreland