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Harry Belafonte is one win away from attaining EGOT status — winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony in competition (though he did receive an honorary Oscar in 2015, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award).
His first of those wins, a Tony in 1954 for a supporting role in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, was followed by an Emmy in 1960 for outstanding performance in a variety or musical program for The Revlon Revue: Tonight With Belafonte. The actor-singer became the first Black person to win an Emmy, beating out competition from Another Evening With Fred Astaire and Dinah Shore Chevy Show. His appearance on the hourlong CBS variety show, which in other episodes featured the likes of Chita Rivera, Peggy Lee and Jack Cole participating in music and comedy sketches, has been described as a musical trip through Black America, showcasing historical and contemporary styles from gospel to jazz. Belafonte performed such numbers as “My Lord, What a Mornin’ ” and “Jump Down, Spin Around,” and special guest Odetta sang “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” and dueted with him on “Why, Why and Why,” backed by a choir, orchestra and dancers.
In its review of the show, THR lauded “several choice high spots, the likes of which are seldom seen on TV, delightfully staged and presented with a fascinating, yet simple, swiftness of pace.”
In the years leading up to and following his historic Emmy victory, Belafonte was heavily involved in the civil rights movement, serving as one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s confidants during the 1950s and ’60s. The Jamaican performer continued to record albums (racking up three Grammys), host TV specials and appear in films (Odds Against Tomorrow; The World, the Flesh and the Devil), all while supporting King’s family, financing the 1961 Freedom Rides and participating in the 1963 March on Washington.
“Sixty-one years ago — it is hard to remember specifics of an evening. I am glad to have broken a barrier and so many since,” Belafonte, now 94, said in a statement to THR in a year when performers of color comprise 44 percent of the acting nominations for the 73rd Emmy Awards. Nonwhite talent also hold at least half of the spots in the lead drama actor and actress races for the first time in Emmy history. Says Belafonte, “The diversity today in television is long overdue.”
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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