Harry Belafonte was born on March 1, 1927, in New York City to Caribbean immigrants. As a young child, Belafonte’s parents divorced. He was sent to Jamaica but eventually returned to NY in 1939 and lived in poverty with his mother.
Belafonte dropped out of high school in 1944 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served in the Pacific during the end of World War II before being discharged from the service and returning to New York City. He worked a series of odd jobs but soon found his career inspiration after attending a performance of the American Negro Theater.
Belafonte caught his first big break when singing for a class project. He impressed Monte Kay, who offered Belafonte the opportunity to perform at a jazz club backed by such talented musicians as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. In 1949, he landed his first recording deal.
Debuting on Broadway in 1953, Belafonte won a Tony Award for his performance in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, in which he performed several of his own songs, which had switched to Folk songs by this time.
Belafonte launched his film career around this same time playing a school principal opposite Dorothy Dandridge in his first movie, Bright Road (1953). The pair reunited the following year for Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones, a film adaptation of the Broadway musical. Belafonte received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Joe, a soldier who falls for the title character, played by Dandridge.
The success of Carmen Jones made Belafonte a star, and soon he became a music sensation. After signing with RCA Victor Records, he released Calypso (1956), an album featuring his take on traditional Caribbean folk music and the very popular song “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”.
He became the first African-American television producer, working on numerous musical shows. In the early 1970s, Belafonte even teamed up with singer Lena Horne for a one-hour special.
In the 1950s, Belafonte met civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The pair became good friends, and Belafonte emerged as a strong voice for the civil rights movement. Belafonte was with King when the civil rights leader gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., and visited with him days before King was assassinated in 1968.
In 2006, he made headlines when he referred to President George W. Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world” for launching the war in Iraq. He also insulted African-American members of the Bush administration General Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, referring to them as “house slaves.” In regards to Powell and Rice, Belafonte said “you are serving those who continue to design our oppression.”
Belafonte lives in New York City with his third wife Pamela Frank. The couple wed in April 2008. Belafonte has two children with second wife, dancer Julie Robinson, to whom he was married for nearly 50 years. He also has two other children from his first marriage to Marguerite Byrd.
Belafonte won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Governor’s Awards in November 2014 and invited his longtime friend, Sidney Poitier, up on stage with him. See the video of his acceptance below.