HOLLYWOOD -- Stepin Fetchit, whose portrayal of a shuffling, perpetually bemused Uncle Tom-like character brought bitter condemnation from younger blacks, died Tuesday of pneumonia and congestive heart failure. His age was listed as both 83 and 93.
The comedian, who made and lost a fortune as Hollywood's first black movie star, died about 3:30 p.m. at the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital, where he had been living since 1977, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Fetchit, who made his screen debut in 1927 in 'In Old Kentucky,' was often featured as a wide-eyed, slow-moving, drawling layabout -- a portrayal for which he was later condemned by blacks of another era who said he had reinforced racism.
The actor countered that he had done what he could, given the temper of the 1920s and 1930s, and paved the way for modern black entertainers.
He was incensed by the use of a film clip from one of his movies in a 1972 Bill Cosby show for CBS, '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.'
Fetchit once said of the successful black entertainers who followed him, '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.'
He complained that young blacks 'are taught to ignore anything old-time ... It's the same as if the Jewish people would ignore Moses because he didn't bring them through the Red Sea in Rolls Royces or Cadillacs. Young people are taught by phony leftists to only recognize the things they are doing today.'
Fetchit was born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry in Key West, Fla. His date of birth is listed in reference books as both 1892 and 1902.
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.
Fetchit said he got his stage name from a race horse after losing all his money at a track in Oklahoma. He bet his clothes against $30 on a horse named Stepin Fetchit, which won, inspiring him to write a song that became part of his act, then the name of the act on vaudeville circuits, and finally stuck to him.
He said he got his first movie role because the producer was looking for a 'slow Southern boy who didn't like work,' similar to his vaudeville character.
He was in the original film version of 'Show Boat' in 1929, one of five films he made that year.
He also appeared with Shirley Temple, Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor in 'Stand Up and Cheer' in 1934.
Among his other movies were 'The Country Gentleman,' 'Miracle in Harlem,''Bend in the River,' 'The Galloping Ghost,' and 'The Sun Shines Bright,'.
His final film apperances included 'Amazing Grace' in 1974 and 'Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood' in 1976.
Fetchit earned more than $1 million from 1927-38, but by his own account spent more than $4 million, wearing $1,000 cashmere suits and buying fancy cars.
'Hollywood was a fairyland in those days,' he recalled later. 'You had to live it up. But I was foolish with money. I never had a manager and I used to sign too many contracts.'
He lived on an estate, formerly the home of silent movie star Ramon Novarro, with 16 Chinese servants. A devout Roman Catholic, he had priests say private masses for him on Sundays in the estate's chapel.
He quit movies in 1937, complaining he had too many imitators 'just doing the outside of my act -- they don't work from the soul like I do.' He said he would 'give them a chance to get monotonous' beforehe returned.
He declared bankruptcy in 1941, saying he had $146 in assets and $5 million in debts. He continued appearing occasionally in clubs, but made little money and in 1964 was a charity patient in the Cook County Hospital.
In 1969, police said Fetchit's son, Donald, 31, of Cleveland, drove onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike with three rifles, shot and killed his wife and two other people, then opened fire on passing cars, injuring 17 people before killing himself. Fetchit never believed his son was responsible, saying he had been framed.
In his later years he lived for a time on the South Side of Chicago. In 1977 he moved to the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
He is survived by a sister, Marie Carter of Los Angeles. Funeral arrangements were pending.