Being Noble

Noble Johnson: A Black Man in the movies

We tend to think of Black People as stereotypes.  This guy was better than that.  He should be taught in the schools.  Also note that Lon Chaney was his friend.  A white man with a black friend. Or is it a black man with a white friend?

Noble JOHNSON: Biographie et filmographie


Noble Johnson: The actor playing “Ivan the Cossack” was Noble Johnson, a multi-talented African-American who was a childhood friend of Lon Chaney. This is the earliest known instance of a black actor working in “whiteface” to play a Caucasian.

Date of Birth 18 April 1881Marshall, Missouri, USA
Date of Death 9 January 1978Yucaipa, California, USA
Birth Name Noble Mark Johnson
Height 6′ 2″ (1.88 m)

Mini Bio (1)

African-American movie actor and producer Noble Johnson was born on April 18, 1881, in Marshall, Missouri. His family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, when Noble was very young, and it was there that he met Lon Chaney at school. They became friends as children, and later got re-acquainted when both were making movies in Hollywood and became friends all over again (surprisingly, they never made any movies together).

Johnson, as an adult, was built like a bull. Standing 6’2″ at 215 pounds, his impressive physique and handsome features made him in demand as a character actor and bit player. In the silent era he essayed a wide variety of characters of different races in a plethora of films, primarily serials, westerns and adventure movies. While Johnson was cast as blacks in many films, he also played Native American and Latino parts and “exotic” characters such as Arabians or even a devil in hell in Dante’s Inferno (1924) (the old black and white orthochromatic film stock of the early days was less discriminating about a person’s color, as were B+W stocks in general, permitting some African-American actors a break, as their “color” was washed out or less obvious when photographed in B+W. As late as the early 1960s, there were very few African-American members of the Screen Actors Guild, since there was a lack of opportunity for them as black performers were confined mostly to race films until the 1960s). In all his roles, Johnson lived up to his Christian name: his was a noble and dignified presence that exhibited great power and substance.

Johnson also was an entrepreneur. In 1916 he founded his own studio to produce what would be called “race films”, movies made for the African-American audience, which was ignored by the “mainstream” film industry. The Lincoln Motion Picture Co., which was in existence until 1921, was an all-black company, the first to produce movies portraying African-Americans as real people instead of as racist caricatures (Johnson was followed into the race film business by Oscar Micheaux and others). Johnson, who served as president of the company and was its primary asset as a star actor, helped support the studio by acting in other companies’ productions such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916), and using the money he made in those films to invest in Lincoln.

Lincoln’s first picture was The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916). For four years Johnson managed to keep Lincoln a going concern, primarily due to his extraordinary commitment to African-American filmmaking. However, he reluctantly resigned as president in 1920, as he no longer could continue his double business life, maintaining a demanding career in Hollywood films while trying to run a studio.

In the 1920s Johnson was a very busy character actor, appearing in such top-notch films as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) with Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille‘s original The Ten Commandments (1923) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924). He made the transition to sound, appearing in the 1930 version of Moby Dick (1930) as Queequeg to John Barrymore‘s Captain Ahab. He was also the tribal leader on Skull Island in the classic King Kong (1933) (and its sequel, The Son of Kong (1933)) and appeared in Frank Capra‘s classic Lost Horizon (1937) as one of the porters. One of his last films was John Ford‘s classic She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), in which he played Native American Chief Red Shirt. He retired from the movie industry in 1950.

Johnson died on January 9, 1978, in Yucaipa (San Bernardino), California, at age 96. He is buried in the Garden of Peace at Eternal Valley Memorial Park in Newhall, California.


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