My Man Godfrey Cambridge
Who is that you may ask? If you grew up on 60’s/70’s media, you woulda seen Mr. Cambridge in ads, records, TV shows and film. After Sidney Poiter, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bill Cosby, Cambridge was the most visible black male performer of the era. He was in many ways the first Richard Pryor, biting and sardonic but with less verbal anarchy. Cambridge started out in stand-up, releasing a series of popular comedy albums during the time when everybody bought ’em and black comics like Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley pushed the boundaries of language with their “party records” as they were called. My friends and I would slip on Foxx or George Carlin and giggle quietly in the bedroom lest we be busted.
My first memory of Godfrey Cambridge was in THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, my beloved 1968 psychedelic conspiracy satire, as the CEA agent assigned to protect James Coburn. Cambridge is excellent, his opening monologue being one of the great scenes of 60’s cinema. This part launched his film career, leading to his amazing, indelible role in 1970 with Melvin Van Peebles’ WATERMELON MAN, the first major studio picture directed by an African American. Cambridge plays Jeff Gerber, a loud mouth insurance bigot who wakes up one night to find himself “colored.” I was always fascinated by this movie on late night TV screenings along with its shifting tone, very indigenous to the year 1970. Although Peebles would strike esthetic and box-office lightning with his next film, SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSSSS SONG (1971), there is little compromise in WATERMELON MAN and just as much rage.
Although Cambridge’s white make-up is rather grotesque as befits the role, his character goes from a loudmouth bigot to a determined militant by the film’s final incredible image that must have sent chills down the spines of Columbia Pictures executives when they saw the first cut (although they did later sign Peebles to a deal). Peebles directorial style is raw and ragged, but this gives WATERMELON MAN a real auteurist energy. The film’s best scene is the neighbors trying to buy the home of their unwanted Negro Neighbor as Cambridge relishes jacking up the price; Peebles lays out the sad negotiations in the sit-com style living room (where the Partridge Family would move in next) without having the neighbors bray taunts or threaten violence. Their quiet suburban racism over coffee is far more violent as Jeff Gerber has learned his life lessons and is ready to assume a new racial identity. Cambridge certainly deserved a Best Actor nomination for this multi-layered performance of a lifetime.
In lieu of that, he became more in-demand with starring roles in COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970) and even appeared on NIGHT GALLERY in an episode directed by some unknown cat named Spiel…Spielberg. Cambridge also appeared in ads for Jockey shorts and Kool-Aid. While preparing for his role as Idi Amin in RAID ON ENTEBBE, the 43-year old comedy renaissance man died of a heart attack in 1976, complications from his ever-changing weight. I have no doubt Godfrey Cambridge would have gone on to elder media statesman, and there’s no doubt he paved a lot of cultural road in his short but groundbreaking life.