Harry Belafonte, EGOT Winner and Activist, Dead at 96

The celebrated film legend and activist died at 96.

Harry Belafonte -- the legendary actor, producer, activist and multi-platinum selling singer-songwriter known as the "Calypso King" -- has died of congestive heart failure at his home in New York, ET can confirm. He was 96.

In addition to his children, Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer, Shari Belafonte, Gina Belafonte, David Belafonte, and his two stepchildren, Sarah Frank and Lindsey Frank, he leaves behind eight grandchildren: Rachel Blue Biesemeyer, Brian Biesemeyer, Maria Belafonte McCray, Sarafina Belafonte, Amadeus Belafonte, Mateo Frank, Olive Scanga, and Zoe Frank.

Amadeus, Sarafina, Malena, and David released a statement to ET saying, "It is with a heavy heart that we have said goodbye to our beloved dad, father-in-law, and grandpa, the beyond amazing Harry Belafonte. To the world he was a legend, but to us he was Dad, Harry, Farfar - which means Grandpa in Danish - and he will always mean the world to us. We are heartbroken to have lost such a big presence in our lives and we will honor him in everything we do.

They continued, "His legacy is passed on to his four children, Adrienne, Shari, David, and Gina, as well as his five grandchildren, Rachel Blue, Brian, Maria, Sarafina, and Amadeus, all of whom he was so incredibly proud of. He also leaves behind his ex-wife Julie, sparring partner for 50+ years and the mother of his youngest children David and Gina, along with his third and current wife Pam, as well as his in-laws David Biesemeyer, Sam, Scott, and Malena. We will miss him terribly!"

Belafonte Family

Oprah Winfrey gave a statement ET on Belafonte's passing, writing, "Harry Belafonte, a trailblazer and hero to us all.  Thank you for your music, your artistry, your activism, your fight for civil rights and justice – especially risking your life back in the day to get money to the movement.  Your being here on earth has Blessed us."

The Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor's credits include Uptown Saturday Night, Island in the Sun, Odds Against Tomorrow, Carmen Jones, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, White Man's Burden, and most recently, Spike Lee’s 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman.

In childhood, Belafonte lived somewhat nomadically, traveling between the Caribbean and New York City, where he was born on March 1, 1940. The son of Jamaican immigrants, Belafonte spent his pre-teen years living in Jamaica with his grandmother before moving back to Harlem, New York, where he attended high school.

After joining the Navy during World War I, Belafonte returned to the Big Apple to find work. Unsure of what he wanted to do as a profession, he initially worked as a janitor’s assistant. “The job could not be considered artistic, but I did the job artistically," he told NPR in 2011.

“I loved mopping the halls, and I tried to look a little like Charlie Chaplin on skates as I just rushed up and down the hallway with a wet mop, trying to take the boredom out of all day long mopping halls and hauling garbage and stoking furnaces,” he recalled. “But it paid off, because one day I did a repair at a tenant's apartment and they gave me, as a gratuity, two tickets to a theater. So I went to this place, the American Negro Theater, and it was there that the universe opened for me.”

Belafonte Family

Sitting in the audience was an exciting, albeit “overwhelming,” experience for Belafonte who intern discovered his talent for performing. He also met fellow actor, Sidney Poitier, whom he regarded as his “first friend.” The two co-starred together in Buck and the Preacher, Poitier’s 1972 directorial film debut, and remained friends for decades. 

Having sparked a fire for the stage, Belafonte enrolled in New York City’s Dramatic Workshop of the New School (he continued working as a janitor’s assistant to pay for the classes) studying alongside then up-and-comers, Bea Arthur, Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Poitier and other screen legends then in the early stages of their careers. 

In 1953, Belafonte landed his first movie role in Bright Rode, co-starring Dorothy Dandridge. He re-teamed with Dandridge the following year as her love interest in Carmen Jones, the film adaption of Oscar Hammerstein’s Broadway 1943 play. 

The World War II-era production earned a Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy. Dandridge also became the first black actress to earn an Oscar nomination in a leading category. 

As Belafonte’s acting career began to take flight, so did his music. He signed with RCA Victor and debuted his breakthrough album, Calypso, in 1956. Aside from topping the Billboard charts, Calypso became the first LP to go platinum in a year and featured what became his signature single, “Banana Boat Song” (also known as “Day-O.”). In his 2011 memoir My Song, Belafonte explained the metaphorical roots of Black music, and the underlying meaning of the “Banana Boat Song.”

"The only way that we could speak to the pain and the anguish of our experiences was often through how we codified our stories in the songs that we sang,” he wrote. “And when I sing the 'Banana Boat Song,' the song is a work song. It's about men who sweat all day long, and they are underpaid, and they're begging the tallyman to come and give them an honest count — counting the bananas that I've picked, so I can be paid.”

"People sing and delight and dance and love it, [but] they don't really understand unless they study the song that they're singing a work song that's a song of rebellion.” 

In 1961, Belafonte scored a second platinum album and another smash hit with "Jump the Line," which became the theme song for the 1988 film, Beetlejuice.

Music stardom opened a new set of doors for Belafonte, who earned three GRAMMYs, and released a total of 30 studio albums. He became a certified star sharing the stage with jazz greats Max Roach and Miles Davis. He released a joint album with film legend, Lena Horne, and performed at President John F. Kennedy's inaugural ball along with Frank Sinatra. 

Belafonte married three times, first to  Marguerite Byrd in 1948. The couple welcomed two daughters, Shari and Adrienne, prior to their divorce in 1957. Later that year, Belafonte married dancer, Julie Robinson, which would become his longest marriage. The pair welcomed a son and daughter, Gina and David, and were married for nearly 50 years before their split. Belafonte and his third wife, Pamela Frank, tied the knot in 2008. 

For more than seven decades, the award-wining entertainer has used his celebrity to illuminate injustice around the globe. Whether he was working side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr. (including speaking at the 1963 March on Washington) and other pivotal faces of the civil rights movement,or standing up for migrant farmworkers, working in support of LGBTQ, or becoming a voice in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, Belafonte forged a strong commitment to activism. In fact, in 1968 Belafonte became the first Black person to helm a late-night talk show when he hosted The Tonight Show for a week. Johnny Carson turned the show over to Belafonte allowing him a space to bring discussions on racism and Civil Rights protests to the forefront of American television. The week's guests included, MLK, Horne, and Bobby Kennedy. The historic hosting gig is explored in the documentary The Sit-In.

During the '80s, Belafonte helped organize the celeb-heavy “We Are the World” charity single in an effort to raise awareness about the global HIV/AIDS crisis. He also became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, as well as an ambassador for the Bahamas, and was named honorary co-chair of the Women’s March in 2017. Three years later, a doctored video taken from one of his old interviews was posted online by President Donald Trump adviser making it appear as if presidential candidate Joe Biden had fallen asleep during an interview. Belafonte responded by encouraging Americans to vote in the 2020 presidential election. “I beg every sane American: please vote them out,” he said in part.

Speaking out against injustice, and helping to increase voter participation, were just two of the many pillars of Belafonte's activism and what he believed to be his duty as an artist. 

"Artists are the gatekeepers of truth they are civilization’s moral voice," Belafonte explained in a 2017 interview. "They are also civilization’s radical voice, so I tied my social activism to my heart, and the two became extricably bound. Because I wanted to make sure that the light and breath of what I had to offer, was bigger than what people wanted to contain me to."