W. C. Fields called him "the funniest man I ever saw." Booker T. Washington said "He has done more for our race than I have." He was a headliner on Broadway at a time when the only Black faces on Broadway were in blackface. Bert Williams was simply a comic genius.
Williams was born in the Bahamas, but moved to the US when 10. After working at a variety of jobs, he started appearing in minstrel shows* on the West Coast. In 1890s, he teamed with straight man George Walker and the team of Williams and Walker took off, becoming a major vaudeville act. In the beginning, they played the standard "coon act" of the time, but they slowly moved away into more universal comedy. Williams also wrote songs for the act, several of which became popular.
In 1902, their show, In Dahomey, became the first show on Broadway to have a Black leading actor, and was a smash hit. When Walker had to leave the act due to ill health, Williams was given the chance to star in The Ziegfeld Follies, probably the most prestigious show on Broadway at the time. He made his debut in 1910** and was an immediate hit.
The songs he wrote for the show also were big successes and he was probably better known as a songwriter and recording artist than a performer. His signature song was "Nobody," a comic lament that has some real sadness to it.
Williams's persona was that of a man who was faced with hard luck and disaster but managed to be funny about it. Much like Charlie Chaplin, he was a put-upon guy who had to fight for his breaks.
In 1916, Biograph asked him to make films. Two were produced: Fish and Natural Born Gambler. Williams was required to use blackface, of course, but tried to do more than just be a coon comedian. He was able to direct and kept the stereotypes to a minimum. But the films never took off, and Williams returned to Broadway and the Follies.
Williams remained a headliner until his death.*** But he was clearly a man born at the wrong time. His songs are not a style that remains in favor, and he was too early to be considered part of the Great American Songbook era of the 1930s. His film performances are in silent films, which keeps them obscure with today's audiences. And his race kept him from gaining wide acceptance at a time when racial discrimination was the norm.
But it's important to remember that, even in those days, he had the talent to be noticed by the top audiences in the country, a sure sign of a remarkable ability.
*Yes, there were minstrel shows featuring all-Black casts. They wore blackface because that was what was expected of a minstrel show. In the context of the time, blackface was akin to whiteface on a mime: it identified the performer and did not, in and of itself, offend Black audiences.
**Along with Fanny Brice.
***After he collapsed on stage during a performance.