Steven Perry (born 7 July 1952) is an American restaurateur and a former film and television actor known for his roles in A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and TV series The Twilight Zone (1960) and Magnum, P.I. (1983-1987). He was one of the first African-American child actors to play non-stereotypical roles in American movies and television shows in the 1950s and 1960s.
Retired from acting, Perry now owns and operates a Los Angeles-based restaurant named Stevie's Creole Cafe (opened in 2016.)
Life and career
Steven Perry was born on July 7, 1952. He is also credited as Steve, Stevie, or Stephen.
For a long time, due to prejudices and racial segregation, African-American actors and actresses were offered only highly stereotypical roles. This also applied to child actors employed exclusively as servants or in comic interludes. It wasn't until Hal Roach's The Little Rascals TV series between 1922 and 1944, that some African-American child actors like Ernest Morrison, Eugene Jackson, Allen Hoskins, Matthew Beard and Billie Thomas received respectable roles.
After the end of the Second World War, the African-American community began to openly rebel against this discrimination in the film industry. In 1946, Walt Disney Studios produced Song of the South (directed by Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson)—an animation film set in the post-slavery South and inspired by the tales of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris. Glenn Leedy, an African-American child actor, was cast as "Toby," one of the leading roles, alongside Ruth Warrick, Bobby Driscoll, and James Baskett. However, in the new post-war climate, the film immediately sparked bitter controversy for wanting to promote a sugary and patronizing image of interracial relationships. To this day, Song of the South is one of the very few Disney classics not available on DVD.
In 1948, director Sidney Meyers showed a different path is possible, by calling a non-professional African-American child actor, Donald Thompson, to play the dramatic role of a Harlem child in The Quiet One, a documentary film of neo-realist inspiration. The documentary chronicles the rehabilitation of a young, emotionally disturbed African-American boy (Thompson), with a commentary written by James Agee, and narrated by Gary Merrill.
In 1953, Canadian film director Gerald Mayer directed Bright Road—a film adapted from the Christopher Award-winning short story "See How They Run" by Mary Elizabeth Vroman. The film featured a nearly all-black cast with Dorothy Dandridge, Philip Hepburn, and Harry Belafonte in the lead.
Driven by civil rights struggles, the situation in the 1950s and early 1960s gradually began to change, thanks to the commitment of some courageous directors and producers and to the talent and success of Sidney Poitier, who in 1964 became the first African-American actor to receive the Oscar for best actor. However, no other important roles were offered to African-American child actors until 1958, when Billy Preston, a talented musician, landed the role of young W. C. Handy in the biographical film St. Louis Blues starring Nat King Cole (directed by Allen Reisner).
Perry breaking the mold
Steven Perry is the first professional African-American child actor called to continuously fill serious, dramatic roles, starting with the role of a small war orphan (Joe Louis) in "Auf Wiedersehen" episode (aired on October 5, 1958) of Joe Connelly's TV series General Electric Theater. The following year, he was seen as "Luster" in Martin Ritt's drama The Sound and the Fury.
On April 8, 1960, Perry was seen playing the role of "Henry Temple", co-starring with Ivan Dixon, in "The Big Tall Wish" episode of the TV series The Twilight Zone. It was, by far, one of the first American television programs, starring African-Americans. For his work, the author and director of the series Rod Serling received the "Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations" in 1961.
In those years, Perry also actively worked in the cinema. In 1961, he portrayed "Travis Younger" in Daniel Petrie's drama A Raisin in the Sun (based on a play by Lorraine Hansberry) alongside Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, and Ruby Dee. The award-winning film was one of the first Hollywood films to openly address the issues of racial prejudice that an ordinary African-American family was facing daily—it tells the story of a black family's experiences in south Chicago, as they attempt to improve their financial circumstances with an insurance payout following the death of the father, and deals with matters of housing discrimination, racism, and assimilation.
After a break of a few years, Perry returned to acting in 1965-66, as a guest star on The Merv Griffin Show and in some other television series.
Perry's career as a young actor, however, did not take off. He only had a few minor roles after the 1960s: as a delivery boy in an episode of Nanny and the Professor (1971), in 3 episodes of Magnum P.I. (1983-1987), and in 5 episodes of Jake and the Fatman (1989-1990). Perry was last seen on the silver screen in a small role in Strathford Hamilton's 1997 TV movie Escape from Atlantis starring Jeff Speakman, Tim Thomerson, and Justin Burnette.
Perry retired permanently from acting in the late 1990s. In 2016, he opened a Creole restaurant named Stevie's Creole Cafe in Los Angeles, California.
- The Sound and the Fury, directed by Martin Ritt (1959)
- The Man in the Net, directed by Michael Curtiz (1959)
- This Rebel Breed, directed by Richard L. Bare and William Rowland (1960)
- A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Daniel Petrie (1961)
- The Learning Tree, directed by Gordon Parks (1969)
- "Auf Wiedersehen" episode of General Electric Theater (1958)
- "The Big Tall Wish" episode of The Twilight Zone (1960)
- "Lethal Weapons" episode of The Law and Mr. Jones (1961)
- "A Marriage of Convenience" of series Dr. Kildare (1965)
- The Merv Griffin Show (1965-66)
- "On the Flip Side" episode of ABC series Stage 67 (1966)
- "Keep the Faith, Baby" episode of Mod Squad (1969)
- "The Sanctuary" episode of The F.B.I. (1969)
- "How Many Candles?" episode of Nanny and the Professor (1971)
- 3 episodes of Magnum, P.I. (1983-87)
- TV movie Parent Trap: Hawaiian Honeymoon (1989, directed by Mollie Miller)
- 5 episodes of Jake and the Fatman (1989-90)
- "'Til Death Do Us Part" episode of One West Waikiki (1994)
- TV movie Escape from Atlantis (1997, directed by Strathford Hamilton)