With his striking looks, commanding presence and powerful voice, Rex Ingram made a name for himself both in films and on Broadway, and later worked in television. Born in Illinois along the Mississippi River in 1895, Ingram was a graduate of Northwestern University Medical School and became the first African-American to win a Phi Beta Kappa key at that university. He began in movies with an uncredited bit in the 1918 silent Tarzan of the Apes starring Elmo Lincoln, and played small parts as an African native or slave in several more films.
Ingram?s breakthrough came in The Green Pastures (1936), in which he played three roles including that of ?De Lawd.? The New York Times wrote that he performed ?infinitely better than anyone had the right to expect, even of a one-man stock company.? He won further praise playing Jim opposite Mickey Rooney?s Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939). In what is probably his best-remembered film performance, Ingram was the oversized Genie in the British production The Thief of Bagdad (1940), directed by Michael Powell. Ingram?s heroic performance, along with the fantastic Technicolor, was among the chief elements making this movie such enthralling entertainment.
Ingram, who struggled to avoid stereotypical roles, is the dignified valet of law professor Ronald Colman in the George Stevens comedy-drama The Talk of the Town (1942), which was nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture. In Sahara (1943), a World War II film set in Libya and starring Humphrey Bogart, he plays a sergeant major in the Sudanese army. Ingram played Lucifer, Jr., an emissary from Hades, in Vincente Minnelli?s Cabin in the Sky (1943), making him one of the few actors to play both God (?De Lawd? in The Green Pastures) and the Devil. He returned to The Thief of Bagdad territory for A Thousand and One Nights (1945), in which his character as ?a Giant? looks and sounds very like the earlier Genie. Meanwhile Ingram had appeared in several Broadway productions including the original 1940 stage version of Cabin in the Sky.
Ingram?s career suffered an almost terminal blow in 1949 when he was convicted of transporting an underage female across state lines for ?immoral purposes.? When he was finally able to resume his film career he was reduced to playing the uncredited role of an African chieftain in Tarzan?s Hidden Jungle (1955), starring Gordon Scott. Gradually he landed more substantial parts including those of Joe Lucasta, father of Eartha Kitt?s title character in Anna Lucasta (1958), Uncle Felix, Robert Ryan?s dignified farmhand in God?s Little Acre (1958), and Teetot, a mentor to country singer Hank Williams in the biopic Your Cheatin? Heart (1964).
Ingram kept busy on television throughout the 1960s, becoming the first black actor to play a regular role in a soap opera, CBS-TV?s The Brighter Day. Married twice, he died of a heart attack in 1969.