Canada Lee led a remarkable life. In his heyday, he was second only the Paul Robson* as the best Black actor on Broadway. But the blacklist and health problems cut Lee’s career short, and his insistence on only accepting roles where he was treated with dignity made it difficult for him to get movie roels.
Lee was born Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata in New York City. He knew he wanted to make a lot of himself, and ran away at 14 to be a jockey. While there were many Black jockeys in the 19th century, they were being squeezed out of the business by the time Lee got involved. Still, by dint of hard work, he managed to get some mounts and win a handful of races in the New York circuit before he grew too big to get mounts.
That’s when Lee took up boxing. He had a talent for that, too, and one day a ring announcer, cold reading the name “Canagata, Lee” from a card, billed him ad Canada Lee. Lee used that name from then on.
Boxing in the early 30s was just as segregated as the rest of society. After Jack Johnson won the heavyweight crown, white promoters shied away from matching Black boxers with white ones.** Lee faced the same issues, having success against other Black opponents, but finding it hard to get matches against white ones. Still, he was able to make enough money in the ring to live a prosperous lifestyle – though he never learned how to manage money, and was also very generous with it.
But the boxing came to an end when in 1929 an opponent’s blow led to Lee going blind in one eye. He kept the injury secret in order to keep fighting, but eventually he had to give up the ring.
Lee had played the violin as a child with some proficiency, so decided that was his next career. With the help of columnist Ed Sullivan, he opened a night club, but never was able to make any money at it.
By 1934, Lee was broke. He realized that he would have to give up his dreams and take a job as a laborer. He reluctantly headed to the employment office at the Harlem YMCA and stumbled upon his true calling.
A theater group was auditioning . Lee, to postpone the inevitable, sat in just to watch Someone asked him to come up and read for a part. Surprised, Lee got up on stage and got the role.
Lee took to the stage easily. After one performance, he noticed a young man in the back of the theater being threatened by a couple of men. He came down and chased them away, to the lasting gratitude of the other, a young man from Kansas named Orson Welles. Welles later cast Lee as Banquo in his groundbreaking all-Black version of the Scottish Play, which instilled in Lee a love for Shakespeare and classical theater.
Slowly Lee worked his way up, and he finally achieved Broadway stardom as Bigger Thomas in the stage adaptation of Native Son in 1941.*** The play reflected Lee’s penchant for social justice and better treatment for Blacks. And he also did a lot of radio, his voice making him an ideal announcer and even a DJ.
Lee wanted to do a movie, but he was picky: he had no interest in playing the sort of menial roles that Blacks were stereotyped in. Finally, in 1944, he found a role he felt was a good one: Joe in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. He had to fight to avoid stereotyping even then (the script was changed after he signed on), and racism on the set, but it’s probably his most visible role today. Even that was an issue: some publicity photos had Lee cropped out.
He returned to Broadway and continued his success, playing Caliban in The Tempest, and Daniel de Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi. The latter was a milestone: the first time a Black actor played a role that had previously only been cast for whites. Even so, he had to wear special makeup to give him Caucasian skin tones.
Around this time, Lee started getting into trouble. Always an activist, he often found himself at events where the Communist Party was involved. The postwar Red Scare was coming into to play, and with it, the blacklist, and Lee was friendly with too many so-called “subversives” to miss notice. His name appeared on a list of suspected Communists, and from then on, he had trouble finding work.****
Lee traveled to Europe and South Africa to appear in a film version of Cry the Beloved Country. He continued to speak out against racism, and was particularly outspoken about what he saw under Apartheid.*****
His health was failing. He had high blood pressure, probably exacerbated by his worries over the Blacklist. He recovered a bit in Europe, but returned to the US to promote the film. There he found he couldn’t get work, and he was not allowed to leave the country. Desperate and nearly broke, he died in 1952.******
Lee led a fascinating life, and I’m sure there is ample material for a movie about him. There is a biography, Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee by Mona Z. Smith. I definitely recommend it to see a pioneer of Broadway who has been lost to time.
*Their careers had certain parallels: both started out as athletes (Robeson was an all-American football player and considered among the best of his era), both went into acting, both had a strong social conscience, and both had their careers cut short by the Blacklist.
**Harry Wills was the #1 challenger for the heavyweight crown in the 20s, but was never given a title shot. Jack Dempsey seemed willing, but the bout never came off.
***Also directed by Welles.
****His former friend Ed Sullivan was particularly vehement, ignoring a letter from Lee asking for help clearing his name and constantly reporting rumors of his subversion.
*****Lee himself was treated well, but he saw plenty of examples about how South African Blacks were treated, which was worse than anything Lee had seen in the US.
******He is occasionally cited as being killed by the Blacklist. While it certainly exacerbated his problem, the high blood pressure did seem to run in his family.