On this day in comedy on March 18, 1990 Comedian, Actor, Robin Hughes Harris died in Chicago, Illinois, 1990
Discovered by ventriloquist, Richard Sanfield washing cars for a rental agency, Harris was encouraged by the recording and touring artist to consider comedy. Harris gained experience opening for Sanfield and auditioned to be a regular at Hollywood’s World Famous Comedy Store in 1980. Owner, Mitzi Shore told him his act was “too Black” and so he went to where that was an asset not an insult. He was approached by then struggling promoter, Michael Williams and a partnership was formed. On September 5, 1985 Williams opened the first black comedy club in Los Angeles, The Comedy Act Theater and Harris was his host.
The club became the place to be on Thursday –Saturday and Harris was the man to see. His old school style and rapid fire insults (he talked about patrons on the way up the stairs to the bathroom and on the way back down as well as anybody wearing something dumb or saying something stupid) and ad-libs (not to mention signature routines; most famous being Bebe’s Kids) made him the talk of Los Angeles and soon Hollywood. Major Black celebrities would talk about Harris during so many outings with their non-black reps that they wanted to see him. When they were told he didn’t perform in Hollywood (the usual showcase city) the industry types made caravan trips down to the hood to see him. And what they saw made dollar signs jump in their eyes.
Robin Harris was soon in the movie making business. He debuted in Keenan Ivory Wayans, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. He played Kid’s (of Kid & Play) father, Pops, in the original House Party (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Independent Spirit Awards). He appeared briefly in Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights. His next role and some say his most memorable was as Sweet Dick Willie in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Harris was part of a trio of bench sitters commenting on what goes on in the neighborhood. The only thing missing was the dominoes. He was then seen in Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, starring Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes playing the part of night club comedian, Butterbean.
Television also came calling. Harris was pegged to be the host of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. It was rumored CBS had a show in the works to star Harris and fellow L.A. comedy mainstay, Reynaldo Rey. There was also the film The Last Boy Scout to co-star Harris and Bruce Willis, but on March 18, 1990 the avalanche of a career ended. Robin Harris died of a heart attack after a sold out show at Chicago’s Regal Theater. He was only 36 years old, but he spawned what came to be known as the Urban Comedy Boom.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
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