(Feb. 16, 1904-July 9, 1948). James Franklin Baskett was born in Indianapolis and attended Arsenal Technical High School. Though he aspired to study pharmacology, Baskett lacked the money to continue his education and chose to pursue a career in the theater.
In his career, Baskett found success in radio, on Broadway, and motion pictures. An association with Walt Disney led to an Academy Award.
Baskett first found theater work in Chicago and then New York City, using the stage name Jimmie Baskette. In New York, he worked with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, performed with the then-famous “Hot Chocolate Review,” and with Lew Leslie’s “Blackbirds” on Broadway.
After moving to California Baskett joined the cast of the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio program as Gabby Gibson from 1944 to 1948. He found bit roles in the films, “Harlem in Heaven,” “Comes Midnight,” and “Straight to Heaven.”
It was his work at Walt Disney Studios where his involvement in a controversial film paradoxically earned him the respect of his peers. Baskett auditioned to dub the voice of a butterfly for a live-action/animated musical “Song of the South,” based on the “Uncle Remus” stories from 1876. He had already worked in the 1941 Disney classic, “Dumbo” as the voice of Fat Cow. Upon hearing Baskett’s vocal range during the audition, Walt Disney thought the 41-year-old gray-haired Baskett looked like a believable storyteller and should instead portray Uncle Remus and do the voice-over for Br’er Fox. As Uncle Remus, Baskett sang the title song, “Song of the South.” Baskett was the first Black actor Walt Disney Studios hired in a live role.
“Song of the South” premiered at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre amid controversy in 1946. Baskett did not attend the premiere due to strict segregation laws that prohibited him from attending any of the festivities. The NAACP and other civil rights organizations boycotted the film due to its idyllic portrayal of slavery. After the film premiered at New York City’s Palace Theatre a picket line formed with protesters carrying signs that referred to Baskett as “Uncle Tom.” Though Baskett’s acting received praise, many Blacks criticized him for accepting a demeaning stereotypical African American role.
Baskett received an Academy Award for his portrayal of Uncle Remus on March 20, 1948. Though not nominated for the award, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper lobbied the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to give Baskett an honorary Oscar. At the time he was just the second African American to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel being the first in 1940 for her portrayal as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind.”
Perhaps more recognizable from the film is Baskett’s singing of “Zip A Dee Doo Dah.” The song won an Academy Award for Best Original Song and has remained one of the most beloved and iconic Disney tunes in the studio’s history. The long-running Disney theme park ride Splash Mountain which opened July 17, 1989, was based on the film with Baskett’s voice heard throughout the ride. In June 2020 Disney announced the theme of the ride would be replaced, more than a decade after Disney CEO Bob Iger referred to “Song of the South” as a “fairly offensive” film.
Baskett died less than four months after receiving his award. He is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery with a special plaque commemorating his role in “Song of the South.”