Godfrey Cambridge
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

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On September 24, 1957, GODFREY CAMBRIDGE (1933–76) made his national television debut on The Phil Silvers Show. Though uncredited, the Nova Scotia and NYC-raised son of Guyanese parents, graduate of Flushing High School, Queens, and former judo instructor, was a private in Sgt. Bilko’s platoon now and thus he spoke: “Hey, Sarge; why don’t we lend Fender the money from the welfare fund?” A modest start, perhaps, but within a few years, Cambridge had won acclaim in two landmark plays: Jean Genet’s Blacks (1960) and Ossie Davis’ Purlie Victorius (1961). In 1964, multiple Jack Paar Program appearances and the first of an eventual four superb stand-up comedy albums brought Cambridge’s fiercely intelligent, race-conscious yet jovial personality to the masses. Dividing his time between stage and screen, Cambridge co-starred in How To Be A Jewish Mother (1965) with Yiddish theater veteran Molly Picon; played a CIA agent in The President’s Analyst (1967); and — because he had mazal — a Jewish cab driver in Bye Bye Braverman (1968). Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man and Ossie Davis’ Cotton Comes To Harlem (both 1970) saw Cambridge excelling in a new, black-directed cinema whose greater possibilities the subsequent “blaxploitation” genre would largely reject. Later, sometimes laughter failed. “If you’re white, it’s all right to put a fence around your property to keep niggers out,” said Cambridge in 1975, following a property dispute with town authorities in his Ridgefield, Connecticut home. “But if you’re black, the only fence they want around you is a jail fence.”


October 1965 stand-up

Bye Bye Braverman

Dead Is Dead anti-drug short (1973)


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HUMORISTS at HILOBROW: Michael O’Donoghue | Jemaine Clement | Andy Kaufman | Danny Kaye | George Ade | Jimmy Durante | Jack Benny | Aziz Ansari | Godfrey Cambridge | Eric Idle | David Cross | Stewart Lee | Samuel Beckett | Joanna Lumley | Jerome K. Jerome | Phil Silvers | Edward Lear | Tony Hancock | George Carlin | Stephen Colbert | Tina Fey | Keith Allen | Russell Brand | Michael Cera | Stan Laurel | Ricky Gervais | Gilda Radner | Larry David | Chris Pontius | Dave Chappelle | Jimmy Finlayson | Paul Reubens | Peter Sellers | Buster Keaton | Flann O’Brien | Lenny Bruce | Sacha Baron Cohen | Steve Coogan | PG Wodehouse | A.J. Liebling | Curly Howard | Fran Lebowitz | Charlie Kaufman | Stephen Merchant | Richard Pryor | James Thurber | Bill Hicks | ALSO: Comedy and the Death of God

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Pierre Mac Orlan, Fats Domino, Johnny Cash, Karen Berger.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Postmodernist (1924-33) and Anti-Anti-Utopian (1934-43) Generations.

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Historian, journalist, and poet Brian Berger is coeditor of New York Calling. He has written for many publications, a few of which even still exist.