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Lennie Bluett, an actor, singer and dancer who played a Yankee soldier in Gone With the Wind and helped right a wrong during production of the 1939 film, has died. He was just a few days shy of his 97th birthday.
Bluett, who also performed alongside Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge on the big screen, died on New Year’s Day in Los Angeles, his family announced.
While on the set of Gone With the Wind, Bluett was angered after seeing that the outdoor toilets to be used by the hundreds of extras playing the Civil War soldiers were labeled either “Colored” or “Whites Only.” He and three other African-Americans approached the star of the movie and urged that those signs be removed.
“I knocked on Clark Gable’s door and I said, ‘They gotta get those signs down or we’re all gonna walk,’ ” Bluett says in James Gavin’s 2009 book, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne. “You can’t get four hundred Mexicans out here to look like black people.”
As the story goes, Gable went to director Victor Fleming, and the signs came down.
In the film, Bluett also had an exchange with Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) when she asks him if he had seen Big Sam (Everett Brown), her trusted field hand. He shakes his head no but wasn’t given a line, since then he would have been paid more than an extra.
Bluett appeared opposite Horne in such films as Cabin in the Sky (1943), Stormy Weather (1943) and Ziegfeld Follies (1945), and he worked with Dandridge in A Day at the Races (1937). He also can be seen in another Marx Brothers film, The Big Store (1941).
The 6-foot-5 Bluett said that he auditioned for the role of Sam, the piano player and singer in the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman classic Casablanca (1942), but was turned down. (The role would be immortalized by Dooley Wilson.)
“I was too young, too tall and too good-looking,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. “I’m good-looking now — but then I was gorgeous.”
Bluett was born on Jan. 21, 1919, in his grandparents’ house in the Jefferson Park area of Los Angeles. His mother worked as a cook in Bogart’s home for 30 years, and his dad served as a driver for Buster Keaton.
He was a member of the glee club at Manual Arts High School and invited to sing at Belmont High by Jack Webb; the future Dragnet star was the student body president and a friend of his at the time.
A piano player, Bluett also performed at parties at Bogart’s house, entertained troops in Hawaii during World War II and was one of The Four Dreamers, an African-American quartet who sang in Kay Thompson’s choir.
Bluett also performed in such films as Spirit of Youth (1938) starring Joe Louis, Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) with Eddie Cantor, State of the Union (1948) with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and A Star Is Born (1954) with Judy Garland.
Later, he spent many years as a piano-bar entertainer with the Royal Viking Line, and when a “Rick’s Cafe” opened in the Casablanca city of Morocco in 2004, Bluett was on hand to sing “As Time Goes By.”
Former L.A. councilman Tom LaBonge once referred to him as “the mayor of Los Feliz.”
Survivors include his daughter Nicole and niece Michelle. A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. on Jan. 21 at the First AME Church in Los Angeles.
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