Some actors make us feel at home every time we watch their work. Their faces and voices have become so familiar, it is like they have always been around and always will.
However, we should never take these old Black actors for granted. They are amazing talents, many of whom started their careers when Hollywood was not the most hospitable place for African Americans.
They fought racism, stereotyping, and other obstacles throughout their careers. While their work will live on, they will not be around forever.
Let’s take a moment to recognize some of these old Black actors who have entertained us for decades and are now in their golden years. All the actors on this list are still with us at the time of this writing. Many are still working.
Let’s jump right in!
Harry Belafonte is a singer, actor, and activist. Born in New York to Jamaican parents in 1927, Belafonte fell in love with theater and got his start there, studying the craft alongside Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, Bea Arthur, and other future stars.
Belafonte went on to star in many movies, the earliest of which had him playing up his Caribbean heritage.
Belafonte’s first album, Calypso, was the first album to reach a million sales within a year. He helped usher in America’s romance with calypso music and opened the door to diversifying mainstream music.
Danny Glover has starred in many hit movies, including the Lethal Weapon franchise, Lonesome Dove, The Color Purple, and Dreamgirls.
Glover was born in 1946 in San Francisco to a blue-collar family active in the NAACP. Initially, he took a government job like his parents, but he eventually felt Hollywood calling. He enrolled at the American Conservatory Theater’s Black Actor’s Workshop and went on to perform in many stage roles before trying his luck on the big screen
In addition to his many acting credits, Glover has also been an outspoken activist in defense of workers’ rights, immigrants’ rights, and other prominent issues.
Morgan Freeman, born in 1937, is one of America’s most beloved actors. With his distinctive voice and stellar acting skills, he’s carved a unique place for himself in his career.
The Tennessee-born actor caught the entertainment bug young while acting in plays at his school. He got his start in theater and remained on the stage for many years before breaking into film roles. His first noteworthy role was in Street Smart, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
In later years, he earned accolades for his roles in Driving Miss Daisy, Seven, Lean on Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and many more. He’s also found ongoing success in his golden years as a voice actor, providing narration for both parody and serious material.
Phylicia Rashad was destined for fame in the arts. Her mother, Vivian, is a Pulitzer-prize-nominated poet, and two of her siblings are also in the business. But Rashad made sure she had the education to fall back on, graduating cum laude from Howard University.
While we know her best as everyone’s favorite sitcom mom Clair Huxtable, Rashad has continued to work on many other projects over the years.
She has popped up in everything from Grey’s Anatomy to Creed and contributed her voice to children’s animations like Little Bill and Sofia The First.
You couldn’t turn on the TV in the 1980s and 90s without seeing Ben Vereen. The actor/dancer/singer, born in 1946, appeared in shows like Webster, Zoobilee Zoo, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
He also charmed audiences in the theater in shows like Sweet Charity and Jesus Christ SuperStar. His film credits include hits like Sweet Charity and Mama I Want To Sing.
Vereen has type 2 diabetes and has become a spokesman to help spread awareness about the disease, particularly within the African-American community.
Who could write an article about older black actors without adding Oprah? Winfrey is not only an Oscar-nominated actor but a groundbreaking talk show host and entrepreneur.
When she was born in the deep south in 1946, few people would have believed that she would grow up to be the richest African-American of the 20th century.
She got her start in news reporting, then moved on to hosting talk shows, and rose to the top of her game in that area.
Still, Oprah always enjoyed expressing herself through acting. She had a natural talent for communicating deep emotion, apparent in roles like Sofia in The Color Purple, and Gloria Gaines in The Butler.
Leslie Uggams was born into a show biz family in 1943. Her mother, Juanita Smith, was a chorus girl at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem, NY.
As a child, Uggams attended the Professional Children’s School of New York and also was a student at Julliard. She had her first TV role when she was only eight years old on the show Beulah. At 10 years old, he recorded her first record for MGM.
Uggams went on to star in several films, including Black Girl and Skyjacked. She also hosted her variety show called the Leslie Uggams Show. This show was one of the first television shows hosted by a black person.
Louis Gosset Jr.
Louis Gossett, Jr. is one of America’s most respected older Black performers. The actor, born in Brooklyn, NY in 1936, starred in films such as An Officer and a Gentleman, Roots, The Punisher, and A Raisin in the Sun. He also has many stage and TV credits to his name.
Gossett has always actively fought for good causes, specifically the fight against racism. His foundation, Eracism, exists to help develop strategies for building a more loving, inclusive, and educated world for people of all colors.
John Amos, An Old Black Actor
Fans of the classic TV sitcom Good Times were shocked and disappointed by the loss of John Amos’ character, James Evens, Sr.
The death of the fictional family’s patriarch was staged so well, that some people were under the impression that Amos himself had passed away. Thankfully, that was not the case; Amos is alive and well and has continued working steadily since his Good Times run ended in 1976.
The star, born in 1939, has appeared in films such as Die Hard 2, Coming 2 America, and The Beastmaster. He has also appeared in episodes of The Love Boat, The Cosby Show, Murder, She Wrote, and The Ranch.
This imposing, 6-foot 5-inch actor, born in 1954, has quite the filmography to his name. Beginning in 1978, Haysbert has appeared in films such as Major League, Alex Haley’s Queen, Love and Basketball, Wreck it Ralph, and many more.
His television credits include appearances on several 80’s hits such as Night Court, Growing Pains, and Laverne and Shirley. In 2008, he played the President of The United States on 24, a role that some believe contributed to Barack Obama’s nomination later that year.
The California native was offered athletic scholarships after high school due to his physical stature but opted instead to chase the spotlight in Hollywood. We’re glad he did!
Carl Weathers is best known for his role as Apollo Creed in the Rocky films. His strong, muscular physique in those films is credited, in part, to his four-year football career with the Oakland Raiders.
Weathers, born in 1948 in New Orleans, has appeared in several other films over the years, including Action Jackson and Predator. He also starred as Greef Karga in seven episodes of the Star Wars-related series The Mandalorian.
Samuel L Jackson
Samuel L Jackson is known for his frequent on-film use of a word we can’t print here, but his career has been so much more than just that.
Born in 1948, Jackson got a late start to his career. He first explored marine biology and architecture before deciding that acting was for him.
It isn’t easy being an older new actor, but Jackson triumphed over whatever obstacles were in front of him.
He became a prolific actor who has been in more than 150 films, including Shaft, Unbreakable, The Star Wars prequels, Snakes on a Plane, and several Marvel Cinematic Universe films.
Jackson’s success proves that even if you aren’t sure what you want to do with your life at first, the right job will come your way if you follow your heart and persevere.
Keith David, born in 1956, is one of the younger actors on this list but has certainly made a good name for himself in the world of film and television. The Harlem-born star has appeared in films such as Platoon, Requiem for a Dream, and Barbershop.
David got his start in stage productions of Shakespeare and other classic plays, and it shows.
His deep, even voice and strong diction have made him a go-to pick for voiceover work.
He has appeared on Rick and Morty and Archer, as well as voicing game franchise characters in Mortal Kombat, Final Fantasy, and more.
Nichelle Nichols, born in 1932, was introduced as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on Star Trek. For many years, sci-fi was a genre that almost exclusively tended to appeal to -and star – white people. This began to change in 1966 when Nichelle Nichols appeared.
During an era when black women were rarely represented on television other than in stereotypical fashion, Nichols was in a major role as a powerful decision-maker on a spaceship. This was a revolutionary moment for African-American and female representation.
Nichols went on to help NASA recruit more women and minorities to their space program, promoting inclusion and cementing her role as one of the most beloved sci-fi actors in history.
Despite being known for playing Uhura, Nichols is also a talented singer who has released two albums.
Debbie Allen is the sister of Phylicia Rashad. They grew up in a gifted family and were encouraged to follow their dreams. Allen’s dreams lead her to the world of dance, and she eventually rose through the ranks to become a famous choreographer.
Allen, who was born in 1950, is best known for her role as dance teacher Lydia Grant in both the film and television versions of Fame. The show revolved around a school for the performing arts and showcased the students’ various talents, struggles, and joys.
Following Fame, Allen’s work was mostly off-camera, as a choreographer, director, and producer, working on shows like A Different World.
Woodard was born in 1952 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She attended the Bostom School of Visual Arts and first starred in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf.
From there, her talents were recognized and she was offered roles in films, and eventually television.
Alfre Woodard has been a presence in Hollywood since the 1970s, appearing in movies like Primal Fear, Crooklyn, and Twelve Years a Slave.
Woodard’s television credits include Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, True Blood, Empire, and more.
Billy Dee Williams
Billy Dee Williams was a star in a string of films back in the 1970s and 80s. He was a sex symbol and gathered many loyal female fans. Williams got his start on the stage as a child, and continued in the theater as an adult, performing in The Cool Word and A Taste of Honey.
Williams’ film credits include the very popular Brian’s Song, and Lady Sings the Blues. But he is possibly best known for his role as Lando Calrissian in three films in the Star Wars franchise.
Old Black Actors, Final Thoughts
This is just a small number of the old Black actors who have made their mark on film, television, and stage over the last half-century.
They helped pave the way for new generations of performers to have greater opportunities and a wider choice of roles.
Many have lived to reap the benefits of their trailblazing work, being able to choose bigger, better roles and work with more black writers, directors, and producers in their older age than were able to at the start of their careers.
Who did we miss on this list? Who are some of your favorite old African-American actors?