Harry Belafonte celebrated his 90th birthday on March 1, reaching a milestone age where many would be glad to relax and look back fondly on their achievements. However, the veteran entertainer, actor and activist is hardly resting on his laurels as he continues his global humanitarian work while using his fame to bridge generational gaps.
Belafonte was born in 1927 in Harlem, New York to a father from Martinique and a mother from Jamaica. He spent a portion of his youth in his mother’s homeland before returning to New York to find work.
Employed as a janitor’s assistant, a tenant was kind enough to gift Belafonte with a pair of tickets for a play showing at the American Negro Theater. This sparked a love of the stage and a subsequent meeting with fellow actor and nonagenarian Sidney Poitier.
The hopeful actor took courses at the New School alongside veterans such as Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis and eventually became a member of the ANT along with Poitier. Belafonte won a Tony Award in 1954 for the Broadway revue of “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.”
Belafonte’s singing career began around the same time as his acting career, using singing gigs to pay for classes. His breakout album Calypso was released in 1956, featuring “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and was reportedly the first LP to sell over 1 million copies. The Caribbean-American artist was largely pigeonholed as a singer as Belafonte was able to sing in a variety of styles and even performed in jazz legend Charlie Parker’s band.
Despite dozens of albums, winning three Grammy Awards, and numerous film and television appearances, activism remains Belafonte’s lasting hallmark. The actor became an outspoken activist during the civil rights movement of the ’50’s and ’60’s and was a close ally of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He also used his wealth to support the King family and famously bailed the leader out of the Birmingham City Jail. Belafonte credits much of his activism to the legendary actor and mentor Paul Robeson.
In 1985, Belafonte was instrumental in organizing the Grammy Award-winning “We Are The World” charity song performed at Live Aid. He continued fund-raising and humanitarian efforts across Africa well into the 21st century in a variety of ventures. In 2002, Belafonte was awarded the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award by Africare.
Belafonte is one of just three African-American to complete the EGOT – winning a Grammy, Tony, Emmy and Academy Award, although one of his awards, the Oscar, was non-competitive. Whoopi Goldberg and James Earl Jones are the others.
Belafonte married his first wife, Marguerite Byrd, in 1948 and split in 1957. The pair had two daughters, Adrienne and Shari. Shari Belafonte went on to a career in entertainment and Adrienne Biesemeyer works in humanitarian efforts in Africa. Belafonte married for a second time in 1957 to dancer Julie Robinson and the union produced two children in n David and Gina Belafonte.
Belafonte married for a third and final time in 2008 to photographer Pamela Frank.