Willie Best

This article is about the actor. For other uses, see William Best.
Willie Best

Best in a photo from Film Star Who's Who (1938)
Born William Best
(1916-05-27)May 27, 1916
Sunflower, Mississippi, U.S.
Died February 27, 1962(1962-02-27) (aged 45)
Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Cancer
Resting place Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery
Other names Sleep 'n' Eat
Occupation Actor
Years active 19301955

William "Willie" Best (May 27, 1916 February 27, 1962), sometimes known as Sleep n' Eat, was an American television and film actor.[1][2]

Best was one of the first African-American film actors and comedians to become well known. In the 21st century, his work, like that of Stepin Fetchit, is sometimes reviled because he was often called upon to play stereotypically lazy, illiterate, and/or simple-minded characters in films. Of the 124 films he appeared in, he received screen credit in at least 77, an unusual feat for a bit player.

Career as an actor


A native of Sunflower, Mississippi, Best reached Hollywood as a chauffeur for a vacationing couple. He decided to stay in the region and began his performing career with a traveling show in southern California. He was regularly hired as a character actor in Hollywood films after a talent scout discovered him on stage.


Best appeared in more than one hundred films of the 1930s and 1940s. Although several sources state that for years he was billed only as "Sleep n’ Eat," Best received credit under this moniker instead of his real name in only six movies: his first film as a bit player (Harold Lloyd’s Feet First) and his next five films (Up Pops the Devil (1931), The Monster Walks (1932), Kentucky Kernels and West of the Pecos (both 1934), and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935)). He thereafter usually received credit as "Willie Best" or "William Best."

Best was alternately loved as a great clown, then later in the 20th century reviled and pitied, before being virtually forgotten in the passage of time. Hal Roach called him one of the greatest talents he had ever met. Similarly, comedian Bob Hope acclaimed Best as "the best actor I know,"[3] while the two were working together in 1940 on The Ghost Breakers.[4]

As a bit player, Best, like many black actors of his era, was regularly cast in domestic worker or service-oriented roles (a few times he played the role that echoed his previous occupationthat of a private chauffeur). He often was seen making a brief comedic turn as a hotel, airline or train porter, but also as an elevator operator, custodian, butler, valet, waiter, deliverymenand at least once as a launch pilot (in 1939’s Mr. Moto in Danger Island).

Best received screen credit most of the time, which was unusual for bit players; most in the 1930s and '40s did not gain such credit. Walter Brennan, for example, made 125 movies between 1930 and 1939 but was credited on only 57 of them.

Best’s career was also unusual because he was regularlyin over 80 of his moviesgiven a proper character name (as opposed to simple descriptions like ‘room service waiter’ or ‘shoe shine boy’), starting with his second film.[5] By comparison, Lucille Ball wasn’t billed with a proper character name until her 14th film,[6] and some bit players like Robert Dudley and Ethelreda Leopold were only rarely billed with anything more than a character description.[7][8]

Best played "Chattanooga Brown" in two Charlie Chan films, 1945’s The Red Dragon and 1946’s Dangerous Money. He also played the character of "Hipp" in three of RKO’s six Scattergood Baines films with Guy Kibbee: 1941’s Scattergood Baines, 1942’s Scattergood Survives a Murder, and 1943’s Cinderella Swings It. (Actor Paul White, who played a young version of Best’s "Hipp" in the first film, went on to play "Hipp" in the next three films. Best returned to the role in the last two.)


After a drug arrest ended his film career, he worked in television for a while and became known to early TV audiences as Charlie, the elevator operator on CBS's My Little Margie, from 1953 to 1955.

He also played Willie, the house servant/handyman and close friend of the title character of ABC’s The Trouble with Father, for its entire run from 1950 to 1955.


Best died on February 27, 1962, at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, of cancer at age forty-five. He was buried (by the Motion Picture Fund) on March 5, 1962, at Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery.


Best's "Sleep n' Eat" moniker surfaced again in the 2000 motion picture satire Bamboozled, directed by Spike Lee. In the film a "twenty-first-century minstrel show" is televised starring two African American performers, one of whom (portrayed by Tommy Davidson) plays a character named "Sleep n' Eat." In a nod to one of Best's most respected contemporaries, his on-stage counterpart is named "Mantan."

Partial filmography

Year Title Role Notes
1930 Feet First Janitor Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1931 The Virtuous Husband Luftus Alternative title: What Wives Don't Want
1931 Up Pops the Devil Laundryman Uncredited
1932 The Monster Walks Exodus Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1934 Little Miss Marker Dizzy Memphis Uncredited
1934 West of the Pecos Jonah Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1934 Kentucky Kernels Buckshot Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1935 The Arizonian Pompey
1935 Murder on a Honeymoon Willie, the Porter Credited as Sleep 'n' Eat
1935 Annie Oakley Second Cook Uncredited
1935 The Littlest Rebel James Henry, a Cary slave
1936 Down the Stretch Noah Credited as William Best
1936 The Bride Walks Out Smokie - at marriage bureau
1936 Mummy's Boys Catfish
1936 Thank You, Jeeves! Drowsy
1937 Breezing Home Speed Credited as William Best
1937 The Lady Fights Back McTavish
1937 Deep South Short film
1938 Merrily We Live George W. Jones
1938 Gold Is Where You Find It Joshua
1938 Youth Takes a Fling George
1938 Vivacious Lady Train Porter
1939 Nancy Drew... Trouble Shooter Apollo Johnson
1939 Miracle on Main Street Duke
1940 The Ghost Breakers Alex Credited as Willie Best
1940 Who Killed Aunt Maggie? Andrew
1940 I Take This Woman Sambo
1941 High Sierra Algernon
1941 Scattergood Baines Hipp
1941 Nothing But the Truth Samuel
1941 The Smiling Ghost Clarence
1942 Whispering Ghosts Euclid White Brown
1942 The Hidden Hand Eustis the Chauffeur
1942 Busses Roar Sunshine
1943 Cabin in the Sky Second Idea Man
1943 The Kansan Bones
1943 Thank Your Lucky Stars Soldier Uncredited
1944 The Adventures of Mark Twain George, Twain's Butler Uncredited
1944 The Girl Who Dared Woodrow
"Home in Indiana" 1945 Pillow to Post Lucille
1945 Hold That Blonde Willie Shelley
1945 The Red Dragon Chattanooga Brown
1946 The Bride Wore Boots Joe
1946 Dangerous Money Chattanooga Brown Alternative title: Charlie Chan in Dangerous Money
1947 Suddenly, It's Spring Porter on train
1947 The Red Stallion Jackson
1948 Smart Woman Train Porter Uncredited
1949 Jiggs and Maggie in Jackpot Jitters Willie Uncredited
1950 High and Dizzy Wesley
1950 to 1955 The Stu Erwin Show Willie, The Handyman 30 episodes
1951 South of Caliente Willie
1951 to 1952 Racket Squad Janitor
Cleaning Man
2 episodes
1952 to 1955 My Little Margie Charlie 21 episodes
1954 to 1955 Waterfront Billy Slocum/Willie Slocum 18 episodes

See also


  1. "Willie Best - About This Person - Movies & TV - NYTimes.com". Retrieved 24 March 2016.
  2. "Movie Review - The Smiling Ghost - Poor Ghost - NYTimes.com". Retrieved 24 March 2016.
  3. Harry and Michael Medved, Son of Golden Turkey Awards, pg.28, Angus and Robertson Publishers, Australia, 1986
  4. "Movie Review - The Ghost Breakers - THE SCREEN; 'Ghost Breakers,' a Comic Thriller, at Paramount-- Spy Pictures at the Rialto and Palace - NYTimes.com". Retrieved 24 March 2016.
  5. "Willie Best". IMDb. Retrieved 24 March 2016.
  6. "Lucille Ball". IMDb. Retrieved 24 March 2016.
  7. "Robert Dudley". IMDb. Retrieved 24 March 2016.
  8. "Ethelreda Leopold". IMDb. Retrieved 24 March 2016.
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