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Harry Belafonte, Actor and Activist, Dies at 96

A legend in music and on-screen, he was a lifelong social justice crusader

spinner image Singer and actor Harry Belafonte smiling for a portrait
Photo by: Reiche/ullstein bild via Getty Images

An actor, singer, filmmaker, activist and a human rights luminary to the end, Harry Belafonte, 96, died today at his home in New York City. The cause of death was congestive heart failure, according to his longtime spokesperson, Ken Sunshine.

At his star-studded 95th birthday celebration in March 2022, actor Alfre Woodard spoke for many when she said she’d shown up to the event, a fundraiser for his social-change organization Sankofa, because “Harry’s always shown up. For me, for all of us, for everybody around this country and people around the world.” His daughter Gina Belafonte said that her father understood the power of “using art as a message of hope, but also as one of political consequence.”

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The child of West Indian immigrants, the man born as Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. became a nightclub sensation, a recording artist, and an actor onstage and on screens big and small. He leveraged his popularity as an entertainer for the cause of justice, starting with the Civil Rights Movement. “Not only was he an artist of the highest order, but Belafonte was also one of the first celebrities who understood the value of his fame and how it could be used to influence social change,” said Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association.

Belafonte’s groundbreaking work on stage, on-screen and in recording studios garnered him a Tony Award, an Emmy and several Grammys. In 2014, Belafonte completed the grand slam of entertainment, the EGOT (signifying Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony wins), but in a way that recognized his compassion and his activism. His Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar statuette wasn’t for a particular film role, but for his stellar work for social justice.

Belafonte was born March 1, 1927, in Harlem. His mother took him to Jamaica to live when he was 7, and they returned to New York five years later. Living with undiagnosed dyslexia, Belafonte left high school, joined the Navy and after World War II worked for a time as a janitor. But when a tenant gave him tickets to the American Negro Theatre, his fate took a culture-changing turn.

Belafonte began singing in nightclubs, first as an intermission act, then as a headliner, and studied acting at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop, where he met his longtime friend Marlon Brando. In 1954, he won a Tony for the musical Almanac. His incandescent good looks and husky voice made him electric in the movies Carmen Jones and The World, the Flesh and the Devil, a film intended to interrogate racial anxieties, starring Belafonte, Mel Ferrer and Inger Stevens as the last three people on Earth.

Tirelessly curious, Belafonte traded popular tunes from the American songbook for folk music, mining the Library of Congress’s archives. Then he infused folk with the music of the African diaspora, bringing calypso’s Afro-Caribbean beats to U.S. audiences with the indelible single “Day-O: The Banana Boat Song” on the 1956 album Calypso. A slew of Grammy nominations followed, with wins for 1960’s Swing Dat Hammer and 1965’s An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba, made with South African legend Miriam Makeba.

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A Dazzling Friendship

At the American Negro Theatre, Belafonte met another determined actor of West Indian heritage, Sidney Poitier, who recalled, “The seeds of mutual respect were planted.” Ten years before Poitier’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, Belafonte’s 1957 Island in the Sun was among the first Hollywood films to depict interracial relationships. During their nine-decade friendship, they appeared in two films together, both directed by Poitier: the rousing Western Buck and the Preacher and the comedic gangster romp Uptown Saturday Night. “For over 80 years, Sidney and I laughed, cried and made as much mischief as we could,” said Belafonte. “He was truly my brother and partner in trying to make this world a little better. He certainly made mine a whole lot better.”

“I really want my kids to appreciate the history of Harry Belafonte and of Sidney Poitier,” says Stephanie Tavares-Rance, the cofounder of the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival. “We stand on their shoulders. Without a Harry Belafonte, there is no Denzel Washington. And the fact that he was able do this with such style and grace, the fact that he is relevant all these decades later, is a testament to who he is and what he’s done for our people.”

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spinner image Harry Belafonte stands at a podium talking to a large crowd at a Civil Rights rally on West 38th Street in New York City
Belafonte addresses a crowd at a New York City Civil Rights rally in 1960.
Bettmann/Getty Images

When Harry met Martin

In 1957, Belafonte was cast as Martin Luther King Jr. in a film about the Montgomery bus boycott. Though that project didn’t come to fruition, Belafonte spoke with King for four hours the first time they met, and he became King’s close friend and supporter, financially assisting the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, bailing him and others out of jail, attending the 1963 March on Washington, and participating in the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement and King’s 1968 campaign to support the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. When Belafonte hosted The Tonight Show in 1968 in Johnny Carson’s absence, his guests included both Robert F. Kennedy and King, the last interview for each. Coretta Scott King wrote, “Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open.”

Belafonte remained a social justice crusader to the end, in life and on-screen. As Civil Rights trailblazer Jerome Turner in Spike Lee’s 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman, he visits a college Black Students Union, transfixing the gathered with the true story of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, delivered with that unforgettable and melodic rasp. His voice will not be forgotten.

Belafonte is survived by wife Pamela Frank; ex-wife Julie Robinson and their two children, David and Gina; and daughters Adrienne and Shari Belafonte from his first marriage, to the late Marguerite Byrd.

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