Cambridge, Godfrey MacArthur

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Cambridge, Godfrey MacArthur

February 26, 1933
November 29, 1976

Actor Godfrey Cambridge was born in New York City in 1933 and grew up in Harlem with his parents, Sarah and Alexander Cambridge. He attended Flushing High School, where he excelled as both a student and a leader of extracurricular activities. Cambridge won a scholarship to Hofstra College (now University) on Long Island, where he majored in English and had his first acting experience, appearing in a school production of Macbeth. After racial threats forced him to leave Hofstra during his junior year, Cambridge attended City College in New York City. Upon graduating, he worked at a number of jobs including stints as an airplane wing cleaner, a judo instructor, a cab driver, and a clerk for the New York City Housing Authority.

In 1956 Cambridge landed his first professional role, as a bartender in an Off-Broadway revival of Louis Peterson's Take a Giant Step. The play ran for nine months and led to television appearances in shows such as The United States Steel Hour, Naked City, and You'll Never Get Rich (with Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko). In 1961 Cambridge appeared in Jean Genet's The Blacks, a savage drama about racial hatred, and for his efforts he received the Village Voice 's Obie Award for best performer of 1961. The following year he appeared in Ossie Davis's Purlie Victorious, for which he earned a Tony nomination. Cambridge went on to perform in other plays, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), The Living Promise (1963), and How to Be a Jewish Mother (1967), in which he played every part but the title role.

After a successful appearance on The Jack Paar Program in 1964, Cambridge was able to choose his roles and began turning down film parts that stereotyped him. Instead he played a wide variety of movie characters, including a reprise of his role in the film version of Purlie Victorious, titled Gone Are the Days (1963); an Irishman in The Troublemaker (1964); a Jewish cab driver in Bye, Bye, Braverman (1968); and a concert violinist in The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968). Cambridge is probably best known for his leading roles in the popular films Watermelon Man (1970) and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970).

In addition to his film appearances, Cambridge was a successful stand-up comedian. His sense of humor, while not alienating to white audiences, did not lack bite. Essentially a social satirist, his comedy often dealt with ordinary people, black and white, struggling with the problems of everyday life.

During the civil rights movement Cambridge performed at rallies and organized support for the employment of more African Americans in the entertainment industry. A compulsive eater who at times weighed as much as three hundred pounds, in 1976 Cambridge collapsed and died on the set of the TV movie Victory at Entebbe, in which he played the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.


Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American Films and Television. New York: Garland, 1988.

New York Times Biographical Services. November 30, 1976, p. 1521.

thaddeus russell (1996)

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Cambridge, Godfrey MacArthur

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