CALABASAS, Calif. -- Lincoln Perry, the shuffling black actor known as Stepin Fetchit in movies of the 1920s and 30s, was recovering Friday from a bout with pneumonia that had him near death at the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital.
Fetchit, Hollywood's first black movie star, was reported near death Thursday night.
'He has pneumonia and had a sudden setback' Thursday, hospital spokeswoman Jean Ferris said, 'but he is responding today and his condition is fair and alert.'
Fetchit has been a resident of the home since 1977, she said.
Historical sources differ as to Fetchit's age, listing him as either 83 or 93.
His characterization of the wide-eyed, perpetually bemused Uncle Tom-like Negro was criticized by a militant generation of blacks for allegedly playing to a racist stereotype.
He countered that he did what he could, given the temper of the times, and pioneered the way for today's black entertainers.
Fetchit was incensed by the use of a film clip from one of his movies in a 1972 Bill Cosby show for CBS-TV, 'Black History: Lost, Stolen or Forgotten.'
He charged in an unsuccessful $3 million defamation suit against Cosby and the network that he had been portrayed as 'the symbol of the white man's Negro, the traditional lazy, stupid, crapshooting, chicken-stealing idiot.'
'In a single program I was judged and found guilty by millions of people,' he said.
Fetchit argued that he paved the way for Cosby, Sidney Poitier and other black entertainers. 'They make out like I hurt the Negro, when I was using the only thing available to the Negro at the time. I was defying the unwritten law that a Negro had no civil rights and I was doing it in a way that wouldn't hurt anybody.'
Fetchit was born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (in 1902 or 1892 depending on sources) in Key West, Fla. He ran away from home at 14 and toured the South with 'plantation shows' for black field hands, minstrel shows and carnivals, singing, dancing and telling jokes.
He said he got his stage name from a race horse after losing all his money at a track in Oklahoma.
His first movie was 'In Old Kentucky' in 1925. He said he got the role because the producer was looking for a 'slow southern boy who didn't like work' similar to one of his comic vaudeville characters.
He appeared with Shirley Temple, Will Rogers, and Janet Gaynor in such films as 'Stand Up and Cheer,' 'Miracle in Harlem,' 'The Country Gentleman,' 'The Virginia Judge' and 'The Prodigal.'
Between 1927 and 1938 he earned more than $1 million but spent more than $4 million, by his own account.
After working in nightclubs, he declared bankruptcy in 1941, saying he had $146 and $5 million in debts. He made his last movie appearance in 'Judge Priest' in 1953, a remake of a Will Rogers film. He bought the rights to film the life story of black baseball player Satchel Paige but did not have the money to make the movie.
He suffered a stroke in Chicago in 1976.