An American actor, writer, director, and producer whose early pioneering work in African-American or "race" films was eclipsed in fame by his role as one of the title characters in the equally pioneering and also controversial 1950s sitcom "The Amos 'n Andy Show" (1951).
A native of Vidalia, Louisiana, Williams broke into the theatre as a call boy for theatrical producer Oscar Hammerstein I, and learned comedy at the feet of Bert Williams, the great black vaudevillian. He moved to California following service in World War I, and began to land bit parts in films, particularly in so-called "race films," which were designed solely for black audiences. He wrote gags and later scripts for some of these films, and in 1940 was offered the opportunity to write and direct a film, The Blood of Jesus (1941), a religious drama which proved an enormous success in its limited arena.
After more than a half dozen further films, Williams left the industry and co-founded the American Business and Industrial College in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Three years later, in 1950, a local radio station convinced Williams to audition for the television version of the hit radio show "Amos 'n Andy." Williams landed the role of Andy Brown, one of the leads, and the show proved enormously popular in original broadcast and in reruns. However, despite the near-unanimous sense that the comedy was superbly done, numerous racially-sensitive groups petitioned for its removal from the airways due to its presumed stereotypical depiction of black characters. Although the debate continues to this day, with positions pro and con taken on both sides of the color line, the show was removed from the air and despite its initial success and sterling comedy reputation, it has not been broadcast since in any regular form. Not until 2005 were home video presentations of the show publicly available. Williams managed only a few minor film and TV appearances following the cancellation of the show.
Spencer Williams died of kidney failure at a Veterans Administration hospital in Los Angeles, on December 13, 1969, survived by his wife Eula. In 1983, fourteen years after his death, a number of his race films were discovered in a warehouse, and a reevaluation of the films and his work as writer and director was undertaken. A number of prominent critics and film scholars have praised Williams's work as primitive but pioneering and innovative examples of the filmmaking available to blacks in the mid-twentieth century.