P. Jay Sidney: The Heroic Actor Who Fought to Integrate Early TV

P. Jay Sidney, who was born as Sidney Parhm Jr. on April 8, 1916 in Virginia, was a groundbreaking actor who fought to help integrate television starting in the 1950s. He often was relegated to small walk-on parts such as doormen and waiters.  But the African-American actor also played some substantial parts as he struggled to both make a living and to fight against the racism of the times.

Sidney’s Acting Career

Sidney started out with a career on stage and on radio.  But then he began making a living in TV starting in 1951.  He garnered some substantial roles such as that of Private Palmer on The Phil Silvers Show.

Sidney continued to take what roles he could get.  He appeared in more than one-hundred and seventy shows. He also did voice-over work and took roles in advertisements, such as Waxin Jackson in Ajax commercials.

Sidney’s Battle Against Discrimination

Sidney’s activism was fueled by the discrimination he saw in the limited roles given to African-American actors. He marched. And he advocated for a boycott against Lever Brothers for only using black talent for commercials aimed at African-Americans. He testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962. He picketed. And he spoke out when he saw discrimination and encouraged others to do the same.

A December 7, 2015 article in The New Yorker, “American Untouchable,” by Emily Nussbaum discusses some of the toll that the discrimination took on Sidney.  His story is also recounted in Donald Bogle’s book, Primetime Blues. As in the case of baseball player Jackie Robinson, one may see that standing up to racism is not easy.

But as in the case of Robinson, we need to remember P. Jay Sidney.  He was a dignified man who did a job while also standing up for something greater.

Below, Sidney plays a small role as a doctor in a 1961 episode of Route 66, “Goodnight Sweet Blues.” In this opening clip of the episode, you may see Sidney at around the 3:16 mark, as a family doctor getting some assistance from a white cardiologist.

Sidney never got to see equal representation of African-American actors on TV or in Hollywood.  But he helped us take an early step toward that destination. Moses never made it to the Promised Land, and Sidney’s final role in a movie was playing a bellman in A Kiss Before Dying (1991).

Yet, other actors, like Ossie Davis recognized that they were able to get jobs because of Sidney’s activism. Sidney passed away on September 30, 1996, and while an increase in television channels has created more opportunities for non-white actors, Sidney’s legacy can be seen in critiques like the recent Oscar So White campaign in Hollywood.

Sidney’s battle, which is a battle for all of us, continues.

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