8 Entertaining Facts About Harry Belafonte

Artist, activist, and huge fan of the Muppets.
Harry Belafonte performing in Munich circa 1980.
Harry Belafonte performing in Munich circa 1980. / Keystone/GettyImages
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Harry Belafonte was a world-class entertainer, a beacon of charisma on stage and screen, and an artist who refused to separate his art from his activism. Here are eight things to know about him.

Born

Died

Hit Songs

Popular Movies

March 1, 1927 (New York City, New York)

April 25, 2023 (New York City, New York)

“Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”
“Jamaica Farewell”
“Man Smart (Woman Smarter)”
“A Hole in the Bucket”
“Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora)”
“Matilda”
“Turn the World Around”

Carmen Jones (1954)
Island in the Sun (1957)
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
The Angel Levine (1970)
Buck and the Preacher (1972)
Uptown Saturday Night (1974)
Kansas City (1996)
BlacKkKlansman (2018)

1. Belafonte wasn’t his birth name.

Harry Belafonte was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in Harlem, New York, on March 1, 1927. His parents were both from Jamaica (though his father is often said to have been born in Martinique), where Belafonte spent some of his childhood. While in New York, his mother’s work visa expired, and Belafonte recalled the “underground life” they lived—moving frequently, avoiding photos, etc.—in order to evade immigration officials.

“More than once, when my mother feared the jig might be up, she changed her name and bought forged papers,” he wrote in My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance. Bellanfanti became Belanfonte, and then, after another variation or two, Belafonte.”

2. He served in the Navy during World War II.

Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in 'Carmen Jones' (1954)
Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in 'Carmen Jones' (1954). / John Springer Collection/GettyImages

School frustrated Belafonte, which he later attributed to what he suspected was undiagnosed dyslexia. He dropped out halfway through ninth grade and, in 1944, joined the Navy, which was still segregated at the time. Belafonte spent about a year and a half loading munitions onto ships, mainly in New Jersey, and was discharged in 1945.

Back in New York, Belafonte was admitted to the New School’s Dramatic Workshop—his tuition covered by the G.I. Bill—but only after appealing directly to program founder Erwin Piscator and the rest of the board to overlook his lack of a high school diploma. His classmates included Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Elaine Stritch, Bea Arthur, and Walter Matthau.

3. He and Sidney Poitier used to share a single ticket at plays.

Belafonte and Sidney Poitier met while working and studying at Harlem’s American Negro Theatre when they were both 20 years old. To save money, they’d split the price of one ticket to local plays. “You kept the stub,” Belafonte told NPR in 2011. “You walked in and one of us saw the first half. We’d give each other an update about what we saw, and the lucky one got to see the second half. It was called ‘sharing the burden and the joy.’”

The two went on to co-star in 1972’s Buck and the Preacher and 1974’s Uptown Saturday Night—both directed by Poitier—and remained close friends until Poitier’s death in January 2022 at age 94. (Belafonte passed away in April 2023 at 96.)

4. Calypso was the first record by a solo artist to sell 1 million copies in a year.

In 1956, Belafonte released his third studio LP, Calypso, featuring “Day-O” (a.k.a. “The Banana Boat Song”), “Jamaica Farewell,” “Brown Skin Girl,” and other iconic tunes. It was an immediate success, topping Billboard’s pop album chart for a total of 31 weeks. Calypso is widely credited with popularizing calypso music around the world and also holds the distinction of being the first LP by a solo artist to sell 1 million copies in a year [PDF].

5. He helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.

Belafonte was a lifelong activist, a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s, and one of the most influential members of the civil rights movement. It was Belafonte who spearheaded the charge to make sure Hollywood showed up for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

“We use celebrity to the advantage of everything. Why not to the advantage of those who need to be liberated?” he told Smithsonian Magazine in 2013. “My job was to convince icons in the arts that they needed to have a presence in Washington on that day. Those that wanted to sit on the platform could do that, but we should be in among the citizens—the ordinary citizens—of the day. Somebody should just turn around and there was Paul Newman.”

Belafonte enlisted Marlon Brando to “chair the leading delegation from California,” and together they gathered a star-studded contingent—including Newman, Lena Horne, Rita Moreno, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ruby Dee, Burt Lancaster, Sidney Poitier, James Garner, Charlton Heston, Sammy Davis Jr., Gregory Peck, Joanne Woodward, and Nina Simone—to join some 250,000 other people in peaceful protest on August 28.

6. He loved the Muppets.

Belafonte was the guest star on season 3, episode 14 of The Muppet Show, which premiered in 1979. “That was my favorite moment ever, in the history of my life,” he told Pitchfork in 2018. “I just loved the Muppets. I thought it was a very positive force in world culture.”

In addition to singing “Day-O” with Fozzie Bear and having a drum battle against Animal, Belafonte closed out the episode with “Turn the World Around,” the title track from his 1977 album. The number was inspired by a story he’d heard from a storyteller in Guinea, and Belafonte performed it accompanied by custom Muppets made to resemble traditional African masks. When Jim Henson died in 1990, Belafonte sang the song at his memorial service.

7. Beetlejuice earned him a new contingent of young fans.

In the mid-1980s, producer David Geffen asked Belafonte for his permission to feature the original 1956 version of “Day-O” in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). Belafonte “liked the idea” of the story and liked Geffen, too, as he told Pitchfork, so he said yes—and even filmed a music video to accompany the movie. “Day-O” wasn’t Belafonte’s only song to make the final cut: “Sweetheart from Venezuela” and “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” can be heard toward the beginning, and “Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora)” has a very memorable moment at the end.

The success of Beetlejuice popularized Belafonte among a new demographic: children. “Everywhere I went, for about a year, I had kids all over me: ‘Oh! The guy from Beetlejuice!’” he said. “Wiping their hands full of tomato ketchup and mustard on my clothes. I never worked for such a young audience. And I enjoyed the whole excursion.” 

8. He’s an EGOT winner … sort of.

In 1960, Belafonte became the first Black Emmy winner when he took home the statue for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series; he’d headlined a special episode of The Revlon Revue that celebrated the music of Black America. The following year, he won his first Grammy: Best Folk Performance for “Swing Dat Hammer.”

At that point, he already had a Tony to his name—1954’s Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac—which left him one Oscar away from EGOT’ing. Though he was never nominated for one, The Academy did honor him with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014. Since that isn’t a competitive award, not everyone considers Belafonte a true EGOT winner, but at least he’s in good company: Quincy Jones also has at least one Emmy, Grammy, and Tony, plus the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. 

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