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Obscure Black C-Listers: Dorian Harewood

26 March 2009 13 Comments

Dorian Harewood epitomizes the problematic nature of the category “obscure black c-listers.” Yes, I know I’m the one responsible for its creation, but please allow me to re-explain what the term means because I’ve fielded numerous questions about it lately.

In spite of an actor’s talent or long-standing performance career, there are some many actors whose names are far from the household level. Hundreds of very recognizable black actors could rob a bank and still be treated as anonymous Hollywood bit players in the news (except by, perhaps, Jet Magazine, but that’s another post). Sure, Halle Berry and Will Smith made it to the A-list and I applaud them. But without passing judgment on their talents, certain performers have made deeper contributions to the canon of black entertainment, consistently demonstrate the breadth of our experience on screen, and most of them are c-listers on the celebrity scale.


Now that we have that out of the way, I’m going to talk about Mr. Harewood, because he doesn’t get enough play and I want to make sure you all know what he’s about. From the beginning Harewood has been a leading-man type; he’s classically handsome and has a rugged masculinity about him but is also talented when it comes to expressing tender emotion. These qualities made him a mid-seventies success in the Broadway show “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and in the road company production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” Since 1976’s Sparkle (which is mandatory viewing for a black film buffs), Dorian Harewood has brought that same every-man realism to roles on both film and television. His more visible roles include Simon Haley (Alex’s father) in the Roots miniseries and Eightball in Full Metal Jacket, but he’s also had recurring television roles on Viper, Strike Force, and China Beach. Hollywood lore says that he was originally cast as Cochise in the television version of Cooley High, but once the series was retooled as “What’s Happening,” he was out, which is fine because he has no business playing Raj Thomas. Most crucially, not only was Dorian Harewood the only person to ever play Jesse Owens onscreen, in 1984’s “The Jesse Owens Story,” but he also starred in the WWTD favorite Polly – the black version of Disney’s Pollyanna.  He played the patient but passionate Dr. Shannon, a small-town hottie in pursuit of Phylicia Rashad’s uptight Aunt Polly character. He really turns her out in a Disney way…has her all singing in the mirror contemplating her cold heart and whatnot. I was shocked to discover that Polly is available on DVD – and more shocked that the list price is $30.00 – but check out what may be my favorite scene for a taste of how he works her over in a church hootenanny and she makes that cross look she’s so good at:

As you can see, Dorian Harewood can also sing, in fact he has released two albums while also playing…a singing raisin! Also an accomplished voice actor, this man has voiced everything from a California Raisin to Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, not to mention all types of supporting voices on a range of cartoons. Thanks to his voice career, his list of credits is twice as long as is his name recognition is high. Finally, he’s also a blackjack expert with a how-to video about how to win at the game and travels the country doing speaking engagements to that effect. He’s really doing a lot, and I love his renaissance man mentality!


  • don fela said:

    now this is the one thing roots was missing. that and samuel l. jackson.

  • Monica said:

    thank you for this one. he’s awesome. and he NEVER gets his props. on a side note, i am off to find out more about this cooley high adaptation. i’ve still never felt the relationship between it and what’s happening but that’s what it says in the credits so…yeah

  • Dara said:

    you know my sun rises and sets for polly. if my child dont love it, i’m disowning them.

    and i STILL purchase sundresses based on their ability to twirl.

  • eby said:

    I love Polly! Years later, and it’s still one of my favorite movies. I just wrote on my blog this week about how much I loved it growing up:

    I bought the sequel, but it didn’t measure up to the original

  • jazzfan360 said:

    How funny; I see looking back at the comments on the original Polly post that this post came exactly a year after I found that one lol.

    I just watched the video of “Show Us the Way”, and man, I hadn’t seen that in years and it made me so happy (though it also reminded me I have absolutely no time for interpretive dance. Whoo, the power and emotion of Vickilyn Reynolds’ voice during her solo near the beginning made me mist up. Wasn’t ready for that.

  • jazzfan360 said:

    Oh, and I got lost and forgot to say–Dorian Harewood’s never, ever gotten his due. Dude’s always working but always just outside the spotlight, it would seem. Didn’t realize he’d voiced Shredder, either. I thought he was voiced in all the episodes by James Avery, but looks like there was some sharing.

  • Malcolm said:

    It’s a good thing that voiceover work exists, otherwise talents like Dorian would likely struggle to find work. One of my favorite movies that Dorian did was this 1978 TV movie called “Siege”. He played Simon, the leader of a gang that terrorizes a neighborhood. I’d love to see that movie again.

    If it’s still in the vaults somewhere, it would have been cool if they had put the “Cooley High” pilot on one of the “What’s Happening!” DVD sets as a special feature. As a side note, Dorian wouldn’t have been Raj if he had survived the retooling of the show. The character of Preach in “Cooley High” (played by Glynn Turman) was the inspiration for the Raj character.

    You wanna hear something messed up, but oh so typical? I was watching a special a few years ago about the history of black portrayals on TV. When they were talking about “What’s Happening”, I learned that the reason the Cochise character wasn’t included in the show is because white execs didn’t want white girls falling in love him. As a result, they cut Cochise out and brought in the character of Rerun. Lesson: You can’t have a black male that could be looked at as a sex symbol by white girls. However, you can have a fat black clown for them and others to laugh at.

  • jazzfan360 said:

    Wow, that’s crazy, and a damn shame.

  • PBG said:

    What? No mention of “Sparkle”??

  • msladydeborah said:

    Dorian Haywood delivers a solid performance when he is working. I always enjoyed watching him on the screen. He would be a good leading man because he has some inner depth that comes out in the roles he has played. But he’s never struck me as being one of those actors that wanted to blow up career wise. For awhile he was working regular enough to be recognized as legit. Then it seemed he stepped back. Or perhaps he was pushed back by the industry because he really comes across more as an average middle class brother-which is not a popular media role.

  • tracy said:

    Hello everyone. I agree he is underrated. He is both a dramatic and comedic actor. I did a quick search and found limited info. Another underrated actor is Carl Weathers, a San Diego State grad. He also delivers. He has managed to have success in film, TV, Directing and even Soundtrack (Happy Gilmore). Both of these gentlemen are talented and it should be noted. It appears that there can only be no more than 5 A list black actors in Hollywood per decade. Sad when you think about this reality.

  • Creolebuttafly said:

    Thembi, do you remember that Christina, Jamine and Idid a dance to this song in the Masterman auditorium. Polly is one of my favorite movies as well and I had to search on a ebayish auction site to purchase it for $15 on a subpar quality dvd, but I am happier knowing that Disney waited 15 years to release this for personal home viewing and are charging and arm, a leg and 3 toes for it (preposterous).

    I’m listening to this song and getting all goosepimply all over again! The aura and the feelings expressed in this musical number are very real to me and were demonstrated when we performed this in school. It was not staged, we were shouting fa real!

  • Ms. Debi~ said:

    one thing: he is NOT handsome…

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