*The blaxploitation film genre and its period arguably, is one the most influential periods of Black film history. For many in Black community, the first images of themselves in film was though that genre, even as it at times glorified violence, drugs, prostitution and guns.
However, the blaxploitation era produced many widely unknown stars, stars that should have been recognized for their wide accomplishments in that era.
New York born and bred and LA-based actor/impressionist David Damas had an uncle that excelled in that era, D’Urville Martin.
You may remember Damas from several productions, including the iconic sitcom, “Good Times,” in which he played the part of Leroy “Bad News” Jones.
“I was a gangster,” he said, laughing about his role in the iconic series. But Damas’ main claim to fame is his ability as an impressionist. “I was fortunate enough to win on the Gong Show as an impressionist, doing people like Archie Bunker and his dingbat wife, (imitates Edith Bunker) ‘well Archie that’s not a nice thing to say about your wife.’”
“I was very, very Blessed as a kid when I saw that I could do different voices,” he continued. “ I was an only child, until my brother was born and I was by myself for seven years, so I’d watch cartoons and learn voices.”
Now you can author to Damas’ list of credits. In his new book, “The Actor Hollywood Forgot: Pioneer D’Urville Martin,” edited by Darryl “D” “Militant” Littleton, Damas explores the life of his uncle D’Urville, who graced several mainstream films, including “Black Like Me,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” according to IMDB.com.
However, D’Urville Martin is probably known best by Black audiences in the blaxploitation genre, playing the part of Toby in the film “The Legend of Nigger Charley” in 1972, revising his role in its sequels, “The Soul of Nigger Charley,” in 1973 and “Boss Nigger” in 1975. In 1972, he played Sonny in the film “Hammer,” “Reverend Rufus in “Black Caesar,” followed by its sequel “Hell Up in Harlem,” and a pimp in “The Get-Man” in 1974.
His best work and perhaps his biggest film was “Dolemite,” a film Martin directed which starred Rudy Ray Moore as Dolemite. He also starred in the film, playing the part of Willie Green, who was the villain in the film.
In Eddie Murphy’s Dimension Films feature “Dolemite is my Name,” Martin is played by superstar actor Wesley Snipes, giving you a slight peep into the colorful character that D’Urville Martin was. Those small Black independent films helped shape generations of young directors and filmmakers.
As you could imagine, as he was the nephew of a colorful actor, David Damas was hired to do impressions and voices for the Tom Joyner Morning Show. Among his voices are Lt. Columbo, (Peter Falk), Popeye, and several television personalities. “I was also extremely blessed to have an uncle in the business,” he reflected. Damas studied with the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble in New York, which produced famous alumni such as Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Chip Fields, among others. After doing a series of commercials for Columbia Records, and working for Doubleday, shipping books, including the classic Alex Haley novel, “Roots.”
Damas relocated to Los Angeles to follow his dream to become an actor, and found his uncle, D’Urville and his wife to be willing participants for his career goals. “They welcomed me with open arms,” he said. He later discovered that his uncle found him a job, working in the movie “Roots: The Next Generation.”
“It was a great honor for me because I actually met Alex Haley and I told him it was ironic, that a week ago I was mailing his book out to different places and now, a week later, I actually got to meet him. He thought it was an incredible story, just like I did.”
Damas, in the book on his uncle, talks about first-hand experiences he had, including learning about many of the difficulties minority actors had with the studios’ marketing of films featuring people of color.
“Back then, Black entertainers, because the studios weren’t putting any money behind them, would put their money together and put ads in the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times,” he explained. “For example there was a movie called ‘The Legend of Nigger Charley,’ which my uncle starred in with Fred Williamson, the studios didn’t want to put any money into advertising. So my uncle and Fred put their money together and they put ads in the paper and they put up this really big marquee on 42nd Street (in New York) which showed three of them as runaway slave renegades. When the movie started to make money, that’s when Paramount started promoting it.”
Damas credits Rudy Ray Moore for his early entry into show business. While waiting for a show in New York with D’Urville and Moore, Damas, as a youngster did his impressions and got invited on the stage with Moore himself. “They put me on stage, and I started doing my impressions and the people were laughing, Rudy was amazed,” he laughed, “because I could make people laugh without cussing.”
In the annals of film and Black history, pioneers of Black film, that are lesser known, still have made a tremendous impact, influencing future generations of minority filmmakers and directors, such as Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy, who helped bring to light the films and humor of Rudy Ray Moore, (Dolemite) in his original films.
However, you can get more insight into that era from Damas’ book.
“One of the reasons I wrote this book was because my uncle really was a pioneer for black actors in the 60s,” said David Damas of his uncle, D’Urville Martin, who was cast as the first “Lionel,” in the pilot of the series “All in the Family.” “He was doing television and movies that were mostly casted by whites. Some of those films were iconic, like ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ He was a working black actor.”
“The Actor Hollywood Forgot: Pioneer D’Urville Martin,” by David Damas is available at Amazon.com and is also available on Kindle. To purchase or view the book, click HERE.