Dorothy Jean Dandridge (November 9, 1922 – September 8, 1965) was an American actress and popular singer, and was the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. She performed as a vocalist in venues such as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater.
After several minor bit parts in films, Dandridge landed her first noted film role in Tarzan’s Peril (starring Lex Barker), in 1951. Dandridge won her first starring role in 1953, playing a teacher in a low-budget film with a nearly all-black cast, Bright Road, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
In 1954, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress and a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Carmen Jones, and in 1959 she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Porgy and Bess. In 1999, she was the subject of the HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry as Dandridge. She has been recognized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Dandridge was married and divorced twice, first to dancer and entertainer Harold Nicholas (the father of her daughter, Harolyn Suzanne) and then to Jack Denison. Dandridge died of an accidental drug overdose at age 42.
Dorothy Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio, to Cyril Dandridge (October 25, 1895 – July 9, 1989), a cabinetmaker and minister, and to Ruby Dandridge (née Butler), an aspiring entertainer. Dandridge’s parents separated shortly before her birth. Ruby Dandridge soon created an act for her two young daughters, Vivian and Dorothy, under the name of “The Wonder Children.” The daughters toured the Southern United States for five years while Ruby worked and performed in Cleveland. During this time, they toured almost non-stop and rarely attended school.
Her mother was of Irish, German, and Jamaican descent. Her father was of English, Scottish, and African American descent
At the onset of the Great Depression, work virtually dried up for the Dandridges, as it did for many of the Chitlin’ circuit performers. Ruby Dandridge moved to Hollywood, California, where she found steady work on radio and film in small parts as a domestic servant. “The Wonder Kids” were renamed “The Dandridge Sisters” and booked into such venues as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City.
 Early career
Dandridge’s first screen appearance was a bit part in an Our Gang comedy, Teacher’s Beau (1935). In 1937, she appeared as one of the many singers in the Marx Brothers‘ feature film A Day at the Races. The following year Dandridge, her sister Vivian, and Etta Jones would make a brief appearance in Going Places. In 1940, Dandridge played a murderer in the race film Four Shall Die — her first credited film role. Though the part was a supporting role and the film was somewhat of a success, Dandridge struggled to find good film roles.
The following year, Dandridge was cast opposite John Wayne in Lady From Louisiana (1941), playing the small part of Felice. That same year she teamed with her future husband Harold Nicholas to film a brief role in Sun Valley Serenade. Dandridge, Nicholas, and Nicholas’s brother Fayard Nicholas, appeared in a part described as “speciality act”. In 1942, Dandridge won another supporting role as Princess Malimi in Drums of the Congo. In her next few films she would play mainly in bit parts, but she managed to get a small and yet good role in Hit Parade of 1943 (1943). In 1944, Dandridge would play two uncredited roles in Since You Went Away and Atlantic City. In the following year of 1945, she would play again a small role in the musical Pillow to Post. Two years later she appeared in a tiny role in Ebony Parade (1947). By the later months 1947, Dandridge’s luck for winning small roles in films had disappeared. She would only rarely appear in nightclubs and wouldn’t make any films.
In 1951, Dandridge was cast as Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba, in her comeback film, Tarzan’s Peril, starring Lex Barker as Tarzan and Virginia Huston as Jane. Dandridge’s role was somewhat minor, but she would be noticed by many. One night while at a party, she was introduced to music manager Earl Mills. Mills had agreed to get Dandridge a career started as a singer, but Dandridge preferred to focus on the motion picture industry. Despite this disagreement, Dandridge signed Mills as her agent. She would next appear as Ann Carpenter in The Harlem Globetrotters (1951). In this film Dandridge really only makes a co-starring appearance, but receives second billing.
After the release of The Harlem Globetrotters, Dandridge’s film career stalled again. Mills then arranged for Dandridge to make her first appearance at the Mocambo. She continued to perform in nightclubs around the country through most of 1952.
 Bright Road
In December 1952, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio agent noticed Dandridge performing in the Mocambo, and cast her in her first starring role: as Jane Richards in Bright Road, co-starring Philip Hepburn and Harry Belafonte.
The film tells the story of a teacher who reaches out to a troubled student during his time of need. The film contains nearly an all-black cast: a few minor white characters are seen. Bright Road became a box-office flop, but Dandridge was at the top of her game as a nightclub performer.
Bright Road was to showcase Dandridge as a serious leading actress, but the film’s terrible reception didn’t help matters of her being taken seriously; it hurt them more than she knew. The feature was named “the lowest box-office gross of the South”.
After Bright Road, Dandridge would start performing again in nightclubs; and, eventually she won a supporting role as herself in the musical-drama film Remains to Be Seen.
 Carmen Jones
In 1954, Dandridge signed a three movie deal with 20th Century Fox. Soon after director and writer Otto Preminger cast Dandridge along with Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll, Madame Sul-Te-Wan (uncredited), Olga James, and Joe Adams, in his all-black production of Carmen Jones. However, Dandridge’s singing voice was dubbed by opera singer Marilyn Horne.
Upon release in 1954, Carmen Jones grossed $60,000 during its first week and $47,000 in its second week. The film received favorable reviews, and Dandridge was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, becoming only the third African American to receive a nomination in any Academy Award category (after Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters) but the first African-American to be nominated for best actress. Grace Kelly won the award for her performance in The Country Girl. At the awards ceremony, Dandridge presented the Academy Award for Film Editing to Gene Milford for On the Waterfront.
In 1955, 20th Century Fox selected Dandridge to play the supporting role of Tuptim in the film version of the Broadway hit, The King and I, starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. The character was a slave, which made Dorothy decline the offer. After some convincing from Fox chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, that the role was a good one, Dandridge agreed to take the part. Otto Preminger, however, told her the role was too small, and that she would be better off to wait for a leading role in a big-budget motion picture: Dandridge would again decline the role of Tuptim.
A few months before the offer of The King and I, Dandridge was asked to play Sandra Roberts in The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, a romantic-comedy film starring Tom Ewell and Sheree North. She turned this role down for the same reasons that she would turn down The King and I, in future months—it was too small. Had Dandridge agreed to make The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, her character would have been a parody of Marilyn Monroe‘s character in Fox’s The Seven Year Itch (1955). Dorothy was not a fan of parodies, which was another reason she turned the part down. Not making these two films started the slow decline of Dandridge’s film career.
 Career falter
By 1956, still under contract to Fox, Dandridge hadn’t made any films since Carmen Jones. Fox still believed that Dandridge was a star, but just didn’t know how to promote her. One of the head chiefs at Fox once said “She’s a star, but we don’t have any films to put her in or leading men to cast her opposite.” In 1957, Dandridge’s luck came back when Darryl F. Zanuck cast Dandridge as Margot, a restless young West Indian woman, in his controversial film version of Island in the Sun, co-starring James Mason, Harry Belafonte, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins, Michael Rennie, John Justin, John Williams, and Stephen Boyd. This film was a success, which brought Dandridge back to the public eye.
Though Island in the Sun was a major success, Dandridge didn’t get another film until she was cast in the low-budget foreign Italian production Tamango, which teamed her with Curd Jürgens. The film received fair reviews, but failed to succeed at the box-office. Dandridge believed that the film failed because she played a slave, a part she had vowed she’d never play. Tamango was filmed in Europe in the late months of 1957 and was legally released on January 24, 1958 in France. Tamango wouldn’t be released in the United States until September 16, 1959.
In 1958, soon after the French release of Tamango, Dandridge lined up a co-starring role in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer‘s off-beat thriller The Decks Ran Red. The film starred James Mason, Dandridge’s co-star in Island in the Sun (1957). The Decks Ran Red was released with high hopes, but drew minor box-office success; today the film is considered a “cult classic” Dorothy Dandridge film.
 Porgy and Bess
Determined to reinvent her career, Dorothy decided to wait on a good film role. In 1959, Columbia Pictures cast Dandridge in the lead role of Bess in Porgy and Bess; Dandridge was again nominated for an award, this time for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, for her performance in Porgy and Bess. Dandridge lost, this time to Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.
Despite positive reviews, Porgy and Bess was a box office failure. The film’s characters were described by several African-Americans as “stereotypical”: Bess was a drug addict, Porgy a crippled drunk, Sportin’ Life another drug addict, and Crown a rapist. Many believed these characters pandered to stereotypes about African-Americans, adding to its controversy.
The actor who got the most blame for the failure of Porgy and Bess was Dandridge. Before the film, many other African-American actresses and actors looked up to Dandridge as someone who had proved that an African-American woman could achieve what a white woman or man could. But many thought Dandridge was “selling out” when she accepted the role of Bess.
A few weeks after the box-office disappointment of Porgy and Bess, Dandridge was released from her 20th Century Fox contract. Though she had been with Fox for about five-and-a-half years, she had only made two films that were released by them: Carmen Jones (1954) and Island in the Sun (1957). Her contract committed her to making three pictures, but Fox failed to find enough viable opportunities for Dandridge.
 Final performances
In 1959, after the disappointment of Porgy and Bess, Dandridge managed to get the lead role as a European girl with an Italian name (Gianna) in Malaga, another low-budget, forgettable movie that was filmed in Europe and came and vanished quickly. Malaga proved to be Dandridge’s final theatrical film. The feature was filmed in late 1959, under the original title Moment of Danger, but not legally released in U.S. theaters until 1962.
She made her last acting appearance the next year as the lead in the television movie The Murder Men. A reporter called Dorothy’s performance “Her most interesting ‘later’ film role.” The film was later shown in an episode of Cain’s Hundred, entitled Blues for a Junkman; all the actors receiving “archive footage” crediting.
By the end of 1961, job offers (of any kind) had disappeared, a disappointment from which Dandrige would never recover. She returned to performing in summer stock theater and on the nightclub circuit.