Winfield, Paul Edward
Winfield, Paul Edward
Winfield was the son of Lois Beatrice Edwards, a labor organizer and a garment industry worker. He was born in the Watts District of Los Angeles. His mother was a single parent. When Winfield was eight, his mother married Clarence Winfield, a construction worker and a city trash collector. Winfield and three other half siblings lived in various locations, including Portland, Oregon, and the Watts section of Los Angeles. He was bused to the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, where he excelled in music and drama. He was a skilled violinist and cellist. For three consecutive years he was chosen as the best actor in the annual Speech and Drama Teachers Association Drama Festival competition for high school students in Southern California. He was the only person ever to win this honor three consecutive years. Excelling in drama, Winfield was offered a scholarship to Yale but turned it down and attended the University of Portland (1957–1959). He dropped out and enrolled at Stanford University in 1959, then attended the Los Angeles City College from 1959 to 1963 and the University of California, Los Angeles, from 1962 to 1964 but left without receiving a degree, thus ending his intention of becoming a university professor. He served as an artist in residence at Stanford during 1964–1965 and at the University of Hawaii in 1965. He began his acting career in 1964.
Winfield’s inspiration to embark on an acting career came in 1949, when the eight-year-old saw Stanley Kramer’s powerful film drama Home of the Brave, in which the black actor James Edwards played an important role as a soldier. Winfield said, “It was the first time I saw a black man on the screen who was not just a servant or a chauffeur.” The movie convinced Winfield that portraying African Americans in powerful movie roles could help change people’s attitudes about the status of African Americans in society. In an interview Winfield stated that he later learned “that because of this one film, Jim Crow laws toppled, without riots, without dogs or fire hoses.” Bitten by the bug to become an actor, Winfield received his first break when Burgess Meredith cast him in the 1964 one-act plays Dutchman and The Toilet by LeRoi Jones. He made his television debut in an episode of Perry Mason in 1965. In 1966 he became a contract player for Columbia Pictures, and after a brief period there he became a member of the Stanford Repertory Theatre, where he performed in many plays, including those of Anton Chekhov and William Shakespeare. He also was a prominent figure in the Inner City Cultural Center Theater, helping to produce professional plays for high school students. He had minor appearances on television. From 1968 to 1970 he was a regular on the Diahann Caroll show Julia and made guest appearances on Room 222 and The Name of the Game. In 1969 Sidney Poitier cast him in his first film acting role in The Lost Man.
Winfield felt that the acting roles for blacks during the early 1970s were stereotypical, limited, and one-dimensional. Boycotting these roles, he stated, “The Black hero in such films is no man at all. He is a thing: a sex object and a sexist. He is without tenderness, without feelings and, far worse, without humanity.” In 1972 he accepted a role in one such film, Trouble Man, because he felt that it served as a means to open craft unions to African Americans. He also landed the lead role in the movie Sounder (1972), in which he gave an excellent performance as a sharecropper father, Nathan Lee Morgan, jailed for stealing to feed his family during the Depression. The British film and television critic Stephen Bourne said of his performance that “a Black father had never been depicted in an American movie in such a personal and intimate way, and with such humanity.” For his portrayal of Morgan, Winfield earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, becoming only the third African American ever to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. In 1973, while in Mississippi working on Huckleberry Finn (1974), Winfield was charged for possession of marijuana. He claimed innocence but pleaded no contest and paid the $11,000 in fines. In 1975, when his relationship with the actress Cicely Tyson ended and another relationship failed, Winfield left Hollywood, California, to go to San Francisco to “find out who I was without being an actor.”
In 1978 Winfield portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the National Broadcasting Company’s docudrama King, for which he received his first Emmy nomination. Winfield felt that the docudrama provided him with more acting opportunities. After his portrayal of Butler in A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1978), People magazine dubbed Winfield as “the most ubiquitous black TV/movie actor of the decade.” In 1979 he had a supporting role in the miniseries Roots: The Next Generation, for which he garnered a second Emmy nomination. This decade also included theater roles in Damnation Alley and The Greatest and several television movies.
Winfield returned to Los Angeles in the 1980s and began working in weekly television series, with regular appearances on the Columbia Broadcasting System crime drama Wiseguy, The Charmings, and 227 as well as appearances on the stage, including A Midsummer’s Night Dream by Shakespeare, The Seagull by Chekhov, An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, the title role in Othello by Shakespeare, and in 1988 the Broadway play Checkmates by Ron Milner. Winfield’s movie appearances were mostly in supporting roles and for this decade included eighteen roles, most notably The Sophisticated Gents (1981), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Go Tell It on the Mountain (1984), and The Terminator (1984).
During the 1990s Winfield continued his successful career with six movies, most notably portraying an adoptive father of two Vietnamese children in Catfish in Black Bean Sauce (1999) and a judge in Presumed Innocent (1990). For this role film critic Terrence Rafferty commended his performance, saying that “as the no-nonsense judge presiding over Rusty’s murder trial, Paul Winfield provides some sorely needed comedy; his gusto is irresistible.” Winfield appeared in the play Love Letters by A. R. Gurney and the television movie Back to Hannibal: The Return of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (1990). In 1991 he played Sir John Falstaff in the stage production of The Merry Wives of Windsor by Shakespeare at an outdoor theater in Washington, D.C. During this decade he received an Emmy Award in 1995 for his guest appearance on the “Enemy Lines” episode of Picket Fences. He voiced the character of Lucius Sweet on The Simpsons cartoon series in 1996 and 1998 as well as characters on Batman Beyond, Spider-Man, and The Magic School Bus. His distinguished voice was heard as the memorable narrator of the Arts and Entertainment Network series City Confidential in 1998. He had recurring roles in Touched by An Angel and L. A. Law.
In August 2002 Winfield appeared with John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra as narrator of The Unfinished Journey at Tanglewood on Parade. His final role was a cameo appearance in a television remake of Sounder in 2003. Other movies of this period included Knockout (2000), Vegas, the City of Dreams (2001), and Second to Die (2002).
Winfield never married but was a partner of Charles Gillian, Jr., for over thirty years. Winfield was a breeder of pug dogs and owned seven pugs, each named for a Shakespearean character. He also had over 600 ceramic and bronze pugs. His hobbies included cooking, collecting art and antiques, playing the cello, and renovating homes. He is listed as one the famous Cub Scouts by the Boy Scouts of America.
Winfield required three weeks of hospitalization for a diabetic coma in the late 1990s. Afterward he became a public spokesman for diabetes, especially to make African Americans more aware of the dangers of diabetes and obesity. He was also a vocal proponent of civil rights and worked to promote cultural diversity in the entertainment industry. His friend Jack Larson described Winfield as “openly gay in his life if not in the media.”
Winfield was honored by Cord, the Black Publishers of America, the National Association of Media Women, the California Federation of Black Leadership, and the Black Child Development Institution of Washington, D.C. He received the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Award in 1982 for Best Actor for the television movie The Sophisticated Gents. He was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame around 1991. A highlight late in his career was his performance at the world premiere of Ghost in Machine during the Cincinnati Symphony’s centennial season in 1995.
Winfield long battled weight problems and diabetes, and he suffered a stroke. He died of a heart attack at the Queens of Angels–Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, California.
Seeking roles that were nonstereotypical of blacks, roles that showed the humaneness of blacks, Winfield brought a calm strength and deep feeling to his roles. Although Winfield had a long, distinguished, and versatile career, he never received the status of most stars. His versatility in moving among television, the stage, and movies did not guarantee the success he deserved. His booming voice and commanding presence left an indelible mark on the entertainment world.
Biographical profiles of Winfield are in Newsmakers: The People Behind Today’s Headlines vol. 2 (2005), and Contemporary Black Biography vol. 45 (2004). A good article covering Winfield’s career in the 1970s is in People Weekly (20 Aug. 1990). Obituaries are in the New York Times (9 Mar. 2004) and Washington Post (11 Mar. 2004).
Joyce K. Thornton