It has been 80 years since Ethel Waters became the first black person to host a television show, The Ethel Waters Show, in 1939, 56 years since Cicely Tyson was the first black person to star in a television drama (CBS' East Side/West Side) and 30 years since Arsenio Hall made history as the first black late-night talk show host. In 2o19, when networks are pumping out more shows than enough hours in a day to consume it all, "firsts" for African-American actors are, thankfully, happening fewer times and coming further apart. With each year showing more signs of progress for increased representation on screen, there has never been a better time for black creators to get more complex stories with more fully-realized characters from script to screen.
Today there is black-ish, which has tackled everything from colorism to police shootings, currently in its fifth season and has produced at least one spinoff; there's How to Get Away with Murder's Annelise Keating (Viola Davis) presenting a morally ambiguous protagonist in a network drama and there's Atlanta, Donald Glover's biting dramedy about two rappers struggling to make ends meet lauded as the best show on television. Though there's still a long way to go -- particularly for African-Americans at the executive and directorial levels to be in charge of what stories are told and how -- the wave of unique stories is proof that we've come a long way. In honor of Black History Month, TV Guide hit up some of Hollywood's most prominent black performers to reflect on the small-screen icons of the past who inspired them the most.
Two-time Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown wouldn't be where he is today with the influence of stage and screen icon Robert Guillaume. The This Is Usstar revealed that seeing Guillaume (who was black and hailed from his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri) win the Emmy for both Lead and Supporting Actor in a Comedy was proof that he, too, could be that successful. Fair warning: his heartfelt speech, which includes a spot-on impression of Guillaume, will bring on the waterworks. Catch up on This Is Us on Hulu.
Phoebe Robinson, one-half of the funny ladies of 2 Dope Queens, cites Tisha Campbell-Martin of the '90s sitcom Martinas a hero. Playing Martin's (Martin Lawrence) put-upon, frequently frustrated but always fly partner Gina, Campbell-Martin made an impression on Robinson for being smart, successful, sexy and of course very funny. See 2 Dope Queens on HBO Go or Amazon.
The Flash heroine Candice Patton opened up about Boy Meets World's Angela Moore (Trina McGee), the show's sole black female lead, as the character that made her feel seen as a young girl. Revisit Boy Meets World on Amazon.
Grey's Anatomy star James Pickens Jr. fondly remembered his childhood hero Nat King Cole and the look of pride on his parents' faces at seeing an African American with his own show on TV in the late '50s.
Tim Meadows, who starred on Saturday Night Live for 10 seasons (and then in like, almost ALL your fave comedic films) has a touching story about his affinity for Garrett Morris, SNL's first African-American cast member but warning: you will need tissues after listening to it. See Tim Meadows in SNL on Hulu and No Activity on CBS All Access.
Justin Simien, the creator of Dear White People, shouted out a "blerd" hero: Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation, played by LeVar Burton. Revisit Star Trek: The Next Generation on CBS All Access.
David Alan Grier, star of The Cool Kids (not to mention dozens of shows, films and theater productions in his long career) pays homage to James Earl Jones... and does a pretty decent impression too. The Cool Kids is streaming on Hulu.
Lorraine Toussaint, a steady presence on TV for decades who'll soon be seen in The Village and Into the Badlands, grew up mostly in Trinidad and Tobago, but came to the U.S. as a youth. Graduating from Manhattan's High School of Performing Arts, she went on to Juilliard and then cut her teeth performing Shakespeare before moving on to TV and film -- a dream she almost wouldn't have had if not for seeing Diahann Carroll play the sophisticated, gorgeous nurse Julia Baker on Julia.
Robert Townsend, a huge pioneer in TV and film himself, cites the late Nat King Cole as a hero and guiding light.
Tichina Arnold, an icon in her own right thanks to leading roles in modern classics like Martin and Everybody Hates Chris, noted that while many black figures have made an impact, the one that stands out the most is fellow comedic actor Nell Carter. Carter's influence as the star of Gimme a Break! cannot be understated and Arnold hopes to follow in her footsteps by headlining a show of her own. See Tichina Arnold in The Neighborhood on CBS All Access.
Lethal Weapon's Keesha Sharp paid homage to The Cosby Show's Clair Huxtable. Phylicia Rashad's intelligence, strength and grace as the classy matriarch made quite an impact on Sharp who revealed that every role she's played so far has a little Clair in it. Check out Lethal Weapon on Hulu.
Drumline and American Gods are just a few of Orlando Jones' many recognizable projects but he's also made a name for himself as an outspoken activist on Twitter. You could say he's channeling one of his icons, James Baldwin, the prolific writer known for his insightful thoughts on race and spirituality. Jones also gave a shout out to MLB great Curt Flood who, after fighting his trade to another team in a case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court, became the league's first free agent. American Gods is streaming on Starz.
The Daily Show's Roy Wood Jr. demanded justice for Charles S. Dutton and his groundbreaking dramedy Roc which is currently not available to stream anywhere. Paging Hulu and Netflix! Someone must fix this, STAT!
Sidney Poitier's powerhouse performance in the '60s film In The Heat Of The Night resonated with Supergirl star David Harewood, who was awestruck at seeing Poitier's Mr. Tibbs hit back at a racist character.
Boomerang and Atlanta actor RJ Walker gave props to Jamie Foxx, a man whose career spans genres and dynamic roles as a comedian, Academy Award-winning actor and Billboard chart-topper. For Walker, Foxx is an example that one needn't be limited by what others think or what even he thinks of himself.
New Amsterdam's Jocko Sims really appreciated the '90s for delivering an influx of incredible shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin and the sketch comedy In Living Color which launched the careers of the Wayans family, Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Lopez and more. In Living Color is streaming on Hulu.
Darren Dewitt Henson, who choreographed for mega pop stars like Britney, Backstreet Boys and N'Sync before switching over to acting, cited Sherman Hemsley as his childhood inspiration. Helmley's affluent entrepreneur George Jefferson from the groundbreaking sitcom The Jeffersons taught the Family Business star that anything is achievable with hard work.
Soul Food and If Beale Street Could Talk star Michael Beach paid respect to Spenser: For Hire's Hawk (played by Avery Brooks) for being unapologetically black while fighting for justice for his people on the dynamic network show.