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Tim Moore (Harry Roscoe Moore)

Tim Moore

Tim Moore

The face of Tim Moore is known to millions as that of George “Kingfish” Stevens, star of the “Amos ‘n Andy” television program.  What is not so well known is that Moore was literally called out of retirement to play that role.   He enjoyed a wide and varied career for many years prior to his selection to play “The Kingfish.”

In the popular memory, The Amos ‘n Andy television show suffers from the reputation of its radio predecessor.  Certainly it featured some stereotypical characters and situations.   To allege otherwise would be disingenuous. However, one must ask why “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” and “Good Times” came and went with barely a peep, while “Amos ‘n Andy” is recalled with strong emotional hatred in some quarters.

Among the worst of the stereotypes was the custodian “Lightnin’,” seen here with Moore as the Kingfish.  Like the portrayals by Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best before him, this character, as played by Horace Stewart was unquestionably objectionable.   Still, I cannot resist the observation that the “cocked hat” style which was once a sign of dimwittedness is now considered quite fashionable.   Go figure.

Oh, well.  Let’s not go too far down that path.  The purpose of this page is not to debate the merits of the Amos n’ Andy show.   Information on that topic, even whole books, is available elsewhere.  Our task is to find what we can about the other Tim Moore.

Harry Roscoe “Tim” Moore was born December 9, 1887, the son of Harry and Cynthia Moore.  He grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, where he began his show business career as a child shuffling and singing for passersby on the sidewalk.  At the age of 12, Moore and colleague Romeo Washburn left Rock Island to join a vaudeville troupe, appearing in an act called “Cora Miskel and Her Gold Dust Twins.”  Moore soon displayed that he was a young man of many talents and his skills took him as far afield as the British music halls.

Returning to the States, young Tim joined Dr. Mick’s Puritia company, a medicine show that played vacant lots all over the midwest.  Moore began developing his “con-man” persona at an early age, selling a cure-all potion to gullible customers–“We sold two bottles for Dr. Mick and one for us.”  His varied career, in these early days, even included a stint as a carnival “geek,” pretending to “bite off the head of a snake every half hour to satisfy a thirst for snake poison.”  Apparently, Moore even found his way to Hawaii, where he posed as a native tour guide, taking carloads of tourists around Oahu, manufacturing ancient Hawaiian legends from his imagination.

At age 15, he returned to Rock Island and worked as a fly-shooer in a stable and a fight manager, even pursuing success as a horseracing jockey.   At 17, Moore turned his attention to pugilistics, reportedly touring the world as a professional boxer named “Young Klondike” and earning $110,000, winning 84 of 104 fights.

 

Following his boxing and racing career, Moore developed a one-man version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  He portrayed both Simon Legree and Uncle Tom, performing with one half his face made up with white chalk and the other with burnt cork.  Moore also toured on the black vaudeville circuit, commonly appearing with his wife Gertrude.  In the ’20s, Moore teamed up with Mantan Moreland, the bug-eyed comic actor who is best remembered today for appearances in a number of Charlie Chan movies.

The black film industry, like the negro baseball leagues, has been sadly neglected by most researchers and archivists.  Consequently, little is known and a great deal of material has been lost in the shuffle.  While information regarding Moore’s film career is sketchy, I can report to you these few appearances:

Beginning in January 1950, Moore made some appearances on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” television program and appeared at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.  Shows like those at the Apollo soon evolved into traveling Rhythm and Blues Revues attended in the mid-’50s by both white and black audiences.

Despite Moore’s varied career over nearly half a century, the future looked none too bright.  By the beginning of the 1950’s, he had retired to his native Rock Island, Illinois, “to fish and relax and do both of them real slow.”  He even took a night job operating a machine at the Servus Rubber Company, a maker of rubber boots and footwear.  Little did he know that a phone call was about to be made which would present him with the signature role of his entire show business career.

Tim Moore had already been in show business for something like 50 years when he was chosen to play the role of George “Kingfish” Stevens in the television version of the wildly popular “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio show.  The “Kingfish,” head of the Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge, was a lovable scoundrel at his most lovable, a role tailor made for Moore.

The television show premiered on June 28, 1951, and ran on CBS for two years, through June 11, 1953, thereafter being available in syndication.  According to the A.C. Nielson company ratings, The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show was the 13th highest rated show during its first year on the air.  For that same season the top-rated show was Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.

In 1979, your humble scribe had the opportunity to interview Alvin Childress (Amos) and Ernestine Wade (Sapphire) at her home in Los Angeles for about two hours.  Some nice photos and a few excerpts from the published interview, directly relating to Tim Moore and “The Kingfish” are available for your perusal.

Beyond the remarkable and outrageous performance of Tim Moore, Amos ‘n’ Andy featured a cast of many other talented black performers, some of whom also had long and varied careers worthy of further study.  While such is not within the scope and purpose of this page, I do have for you the best, nearly complete, cast photo that you are ever going to see.  Click the little image for a larger view of this fabulous picture.

Though often criticized for its racially-based humor, the context of the times in which  Amos ‘n’ Andy was televised is often overlooked.  Contemporary shows which also capitalized on ethnic exaggeration or played up the gullibility of its characters included  Mama, Life With Luigi and The Life of Riley, all of which were as popular, if not more so, among viewers whose lives closely resembled the characters being portrayed as they were with the general public.  But with the long-overdue emergence of the civil rights movement and increased sensitivity to racial and ethnic discrimination, it became no longer acceptable to laugh at stereotypical comedy, even if its creators did not intend the shows to be representative of an entire race or group.

Whatever else, there is simply no denying that Moore’s portrayal of the “Kingfish” was brilliant.  Sammy Davis, Jr. is quoted in an Ebony magazine article as saying:

He had the unique ability in comedy to vault a lot of the build up in a funny situation with a facial expression or a gesture that told more than a hundred words in the mouth of another comedian.

For a bit of historical perspective, you may wish to see the text from an NAACP bulletin released just six weeks following the premiere of  The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show.

In early 1966, the CBS Films division of the Columbia Broadcasting System withdrew Amos ‘n’ Andy from television syndication, saying that the show was “outdated.”  After nearly 40 years on radio and television, a show applauded by some and damned by others had come to the end of the road.  Six years later, on January 14, 1972, Sanford and Son premiered on NBC and quickly became the 6th highest rated show of the season.

Born

  • December, 09, 1887
  • Rock Island, Illinois

Died

  • December, 13, 1958
  • Los Angeles, California

Cause of Death

  • Tuberculosis

Cemetery

  • Angelus Rosedale Cemetery
  • Los Angeles, California

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