Full Name: Cleavon Jake Little
Birth Date: June 1, 1939
Death Date: October 22, 1992
Birthplace: Chickasha, Oklahoma, U.S.
Place of Death: Sherman Oaks, California, U.S.
Known for: American stage, film, and television actor
Family: DeEtta Little (Brother), Valerie Wiggins (Spouse)
Cleavon Little was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, on June 1, 1939. He was the brother of singer DeEtta Little, widely known for her performance in ‘Rocky’s’ theme song, ‘Gonna Fly Now.’ Rosemarie, Everett, and Roy are his three other siblings.
Cleavon grew up in California, where he graduated from ‘Kearny High School’ in 1957. He went on to ‘San Diego College’ and ‘San Diego State University’ after that. He earned a bachelor’s degree in dramatic arts in 1965.
After winning a full scholarship to Manhattan’s famous ‘Julliard School,’ he relocated to New York. Between 1965 and 1967, he trained at the ‘American Academy of Dramatic Art’ after finishing his studies at Julliard.
Cleavon Jake Little was a theatre, movie, and television actor from the United States. He launched his professional career on stage in the late 1960s. He won a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway version of Purlie in 1970.
His first leading television role was on the American sitcom Temperatures Rising (1972–1974) when he played the sarcastic Dr Jerry Noland. During his time on the sitcom, Little starred in the 1974 Mel Brooks comedy film Blazing Saddles, in which he played Sheriff Bart.
Little continued to participate in theatre shows, films, and guest appearances on television series throughout the 1980s. For his role in the NBC sitcom Dear John, he earned a Primetime Emmy Award in 1989. He went on to star in the Fox sitcom True Colors (1991–1992), which aired from 1991 to 1992.
Little made his official movie appearance in February 1967, playing the Muslim Witch in Barbara Garson’s original recording of MacBird at the Village Gate. Following that, he played Foxtrot in the first production of Bruce Jay Friedman’s long-running show Scuba Duba, which debuted in October 1967.
His first film performance was in What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968), and his first television cameo in a recurring role on two episodes of Felony Squad the following year. Following that, he made a string of smaller appearances in films including John and Mary (as a film director) (1969) and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970).
Cleavon Little made his Broadway debut in 1969 as Lee Haines in the musical Jimmy Shine, directed by John Sebastian and Murray Schisgal and starring Dustin Hoffman. He made his Broadway comeback in 1970, playing the title role in Ossie Davis’ musical Purlie, for which he received an Award for Best Actor in a Musical and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical.
Cleavon Little became engaged as an ensemble player on the syndicated TV variety show The David Frost Revue a year later, and he played Shogo in Broadway’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. Little was cast as the blind radio personality Super Soul in the vehicle chase film Vanishing Point in 1971.
That same year, he appeared as Hawthorne Dooley in The Waltons pilot “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story,” assisting John-Boy Walton in his pursuit of his dad; and in season four, he played a professional boxer who wanted to construct a church and be a priest in an episode called “The Fighter”. In a 1971 episode of All in the Family titled “Edith Writes a Song”, he played a burglar.
From 1972 through 1974, he starred in three different versions of the ABC sitcom Temperatures Rising, with Little’s character Dr. Jerry Noland serving as the only regular. In 1974, he played alongside Jackie Cooper and Stella Stevens in the television catastrophe movie The Day the Earth Moved. In the Six Million Dollar Man episode “Population: Zero” Little played one of the NASA deliverymen who handed Colonel Steve Austin his spacesuit.
After the studio turned down Richard Pryor, who co-wrote the screenplay, Little was cast as Sheriff Bart in the comedy film Blazing Saddles (as a black sheriff) (1974). Studio executives were evidently concerned about Pryor’s availability, considering his history of drug use and erratic behaviour, and decided that Little would be a better candidate. He was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer for Leading Film Roles for this performance.
Cleavon Little made his Broadway comeback in 1975, playing Lewis in the original production of Murray Schisgal’s All Over Town, directed by Dustin Hoffman. The following year, he played Willy Stepp in the Ambassador Theatre’s first production of Ronald Ribman’s The Poison Tree. He co-starred with Richard Pryor in the 1977 racing film Greased Lightning, which was based on the factual account of Wendell Scott, America’s first black stock car racing winner.
Cleavon Little appeared in a number of less popular movies after Blazing Saddles, including FM (1978), Scavenger Hunt (1979), The Salamander (1981), High Risk (1981), Jimmy the Kid (1982), Surf II (1984), and Toy Soldiers (1984). He also appeared in episodes of The Mod Squad, The Rookies, Police Story, The Rockford Files, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, ABC Afterschool Specials, The Fall Guy, MacGyver, The Waltons, and ALF’s Christmas special.
In the horror comedy Once Bitten, Cleavon Little featured alongside Lauren Hutton and Jim Carrey (1985). In 1981, he returned to New York to play the famed jazz saxophonist Lester Young in the off-Broadway show The Resurrection of Lady Lester, a “poetic mood song” by OyamO. Little made his Broadway comeback in 1985, playing Midge in Herb Gardner’s Tony Award-winning play “I’m Not Rappaport” and reuniting with Dear John actor Judd Hirsch in New York and on tour. Jace Alexander and Mercedes Ruehl were also part of the Broadway cast.
In 1989, he appeared in the sequel to Fletch, Fletch Lives (1985). That same year, he received a primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his role in the Dear John episode “Stand by Your Man,” beating out Robert Picardo, Jack Gilford, Leslie Nielsen, and Sammy Davis Jr.
Little was set to feature in Mr. Dugan’s television series in which he would portray a black congressman, but the show was panned by genuine black legislators and was cancelled before it could screen. On the Fox sitcom True Colors, he replaced Frankie Faison as Ronald Freeman, a black dentist married to a beautiful housewife, in 1991.
That same year, he appeared in 12 episodes of the TV series Bagdad Cafe as a supporting character. He was cast as a civil-rights lawyer in the docudrama Separate but Equal, starring Sidney Poitier as Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s chief counsel in the 1954 Supreme Court case that desegregated school systems. He also played Frank Colton, one half of a bounty hunter brother combo, in the television series MacGyver.
Cleavon Little’s last acting appearance was in a 1992 episode of Tales from the Crypt titled “This’ll Kill Ya,” in which he had a guest character. Through archive footage from Vanishing Point, he appears in the music video for Audioslave’s “Show Me How to Live” eleven years after his death.
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Cleavon Little, who suffered from ulcers and other stomach problems during his lifetime, died of colon cancer on October 22, 1992, at his residence in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles. His ashes were strewn in the Pacific Ocean after he was cremated.
On February 1, 1994, Cleavon Little was honoured posthumously by a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to the motion film industry. The star can be found at El Cerrito Place on the southern end of Hollywood Boulevard.
Cleavon Little is best known for his performance as a black sheriff hired by Mel Brooks to save a redneck hamlet in the 1974 comedy “Blazing Saddles.”