William “Willie” Best (May 27, 1916 – February 27, 1962), sometimes known as Sleep n’ Eat, was an American television and film actor. Best was one of the first African-American film actors and comedians to become well known. Of the 124 films he appeared in, he received screen credit in at least 77, an unusual feat for a bit player.
Career as an actor
A native of Sunflower, Mississippi, Best reached Hollywood as a chauffeur for a vacationing couple. He decided to stay in the region and began his performing career with a traveling show in southern California. He was regularly hired as a character actor in Hollywood films after a talent scout discovered him on stage.
Willie Best appeared in more than one hundred films of the 1930s and 1940s. Although several sources state that for years he was billed only as “Sleep n’ Eat,” Best received credit under this moniker instead of his real name in only six movies: his first film as a bit player (Harold Lloyd’s Feet First) and his next five films (Up Pops the Devil (1931), The Monster Walks (1932), Kentucky Kernels and West of the Pecos (both 1934), and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935)). He thereafter usually received credit as “Willie Best” or “William Best.”
Best was first loved as a great clown. Hal Roach called him one of the greatest talents he had ever met. Comedian Bob Hope similarly acclaimed him as “the best actor I know,” while the two were working together in 1940 on The Ghost Breakers.
As a supporting actor, Best, like many black actors of his era, was regularly cast in domestic worker or service-oriented roles (though a few times he played the role echoing his previous occupation as a private chauffeur). He was often seen making a brief comic turn as a hotel, airline or train porter, as well as an elevator operator, custodian, butler, valet, waiter, deliveryman, and at least once as a launch pilot (in the 1939 movie Mr. Moto in Danger Island). Willie Best received screen credit most of the time, which was unusual for “bit players”; most in the 1930s and ’40s were not accorded due credit. This also happened to white actors in small roles, but black actors were not credited even when their roles were larger. In more than 80 of his movies, he was given a proper character name (as opposed to simple descriptions such as “room service waiter” or “shoe-shine boy”), beginning with his second film.
Best played “Chattanooga Brown” in two Charlie Chan films–The Red Dragon in 1945 and Dangerous Money in 1946. He also played the character of “Hipp” in three of RKO’s six Scattergood Baines films with Guy Kibbee: Scattergood Baines (1941), Scattergood Survives a Murder (1942), and Cinderella Swings It in 1943. (Actor Paul White, who played a young version of Best’s “Hipp” in the first film, went on to play “Hipp” in the next three films. Best returned to the role in the last two.)
After a drug arrest ended his film career, he worked in television for a while and became known to early TV audiences as Charlie, the elevator operator on CBS’s My Little Margie, from 1953 to 1955.
He also played Willie, the house servant/handyman and close friend of the title character of ABC’s The Trouble with Father, for its entire run from 1950 to 1955.
Best died on February 27, 1962, at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, of cancer at age forty-five. He was buried (by the Motion Picture Fund) on March 5, 1962, at Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery.
1930 Feet First Janitor Credited as Sleep ‘n’ Eat
1931 The Virtuous Husband Luftus Alternative title: What Wives Don’t Want
1931 Up Pops the Devil Laundryman Uncredited
1932 The Monster Walks Exodus Credited as Sleep ‘n’ Eat
1934 Little Miss Marker Dizzy Memphis Uncredited
1934 West of the Pecos Jonah Credited as Sleep ‘n’ Eat
1934 Kentucky Kernels Buckshot Credited as Sleep ‘n’ Eat
1935 The Arizonian Pompey
1935 Murder on a Honeymoon Willie, the Porter Credited as Sleep ‘n’ Eat
1935 Annie Oakley Second Cook Uncredited
1935 The Littlest Rebel James Henry, a Cary slave
1936 Down the Stretch Noah Credited as William Best
1936 The Bride Walks Out Smokie – at marriage bureau
1936 Mummy’s Boys Catfish
1936 Night Waitress Cars For Rent attendant Uncredited
1936 Thank You, Jeeves! Drowsy
1937 Breezing Home Speed Credited as William Best
1937 The Lady Fights Back McTavish
1937 Deep South Short film
1938 Merrily We Live George W. Jones
1938 Gold Is Where You Find It Joshua
1938 Youth Takes a Fling George
1938 Vivacious Lady Train Porter
1938 Crashing Hollywood Train Porter Uncredited
1939 Nancy Drew… Trouble Shooter Apollo Johnson
1939 Miracle on Main Street Duke
1940 The Ghost Breakers Alex
1940 Who Killed Aunt Maggie? Andrew
1940 I Take This Woman Sambo
1941 High Sierra Algernon
1941 Scattergood Baines Hipp
1941 Nothing But the Truth Samuel
1941 The Smiling Ghost Clarence
1942 Whispering Ghosts Euclid White Brown
1942 The Hidden Hand Eustis the Chauffeur
1942 Busses Roar Sunshine
1943 Cabin in the Sky Second Idea Man
1943 The Kansan Bones
1943 Thank Your Lucky Stars Soldier Uncredited
1944 The Adventures of Mark Twain George, Twain’s Butler Uncredited
1944 The Girl Who Dared Woodrow
1944 Home in Indiana
1945 Pillow to Post Lucille
1945 Hold That Blonde Willie Shelley
1945 The Red Dragon Chattanooga Brown
1946 The Bride Wore Boots Joe
1946 Dangerous Money Chattanooga Brown Alternative title: Charlie Chan in Dangerous Money
1947 Suddenly, It’s Spring Porter on train
1947 The Red Stallion Jackson
1948 Smart Woman Train Porter Uncredited
1949 Jiggs and Maggie in Jackpot Jitters Willie Uncredited
1950 High and Dizzy Wesley
1950 to 1955 The Stu Erwin Show Willie, The Handyman 30 episodes
1951 South of Caliente Willie
1951 to 1952 Racket Squad Janitor Cleaning Man 2 episodes
1952 to 1955 My Little Margie Charlie 21 episodes
1954 to 1955 Waterfront Billy Slocum/Willie Slocum 18 episodes
“Willie Best – About This Person – Movies & TV – NYTimes.com”. Retrieved 24 March 2016.
“Movie Review – The Smiling Ghost – Poor Ghost – NYTimes.com”. Retrieved 24 March 2016.
Harry and Michael Medved, Son of Golden Turkey Awards, pg.28, Angus and Robertson Publishers, Australia, 1986
“Movie Review – The Ghost Breakers – THE SCREEN; ‘Ghost Breakers,’ a Comic Thriller, at Paramount– Spy Pictures at the Rialto and Palace – NYTimes.com”. Retrieved 24 March 2016.
“Willie Best”. IMDb. Retrieved 24 March 2016.