James L. Tolbert, 86, an Early Lawyer to Black Hollywood, Dies
Published: May 25, 2013
James L. Tolbert was in love. Marie Ross was too. But she had little interest in marrying a man who pieced together his income by hosting parties and concerts in empty buildings. One of his gimmicks: selling food and drink out of an old hearse.
“He was just hustling,” said Mr. Tolbert’s son, Tony. “She said he needed to have some kind of career. She said, ‘Doctor, lawyer or Indian chief.’ ”
Mr. Tolbert, a high school dropout, chose the second option. He went on to become one of the first black lawyers to represent black entertainers in Hollywood, and to play a central role in an early effort to improve the way blacks were portrayed on film and increase their numbers behind the scenes.
Mr. Tolbert, who was 86 when he died on April 22 in a hospital in the Los Angeles area, grew up surrounded by entertainers. His grandfather Willis Young was an anchor of the Los Angeles jazz scene in the 1930s, and the great saxophonist Lester Young was an uncle. After he graduated from Van Norman Law School in 1959, Mr. Tolbert began building a four-decade practice rooted in his family’s connections.
His clients included the trumpeter Harry (Sweets) Edison, the actor and comedian Redd Foxx, and the singers Lou Rawls and Della Reese. Some of their success can be traced to the work Mr. Tolbert did as the young president of the Hollywood-Beverly Hills chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the early 1960s.
In June 1963, only weeks before the March on Washington, the N.A.A.C.P. mounted what some called the March on Hollywood: a political and economic campaign in which the organization promised to picket theaters, hold demonstrations and boycott major advertisers if film studios and unions did not portray blacks in more diverse roles and hire more of them to work in the industry.
At one news conference, Mr. Tolbert urged studios “to have Negroes shown as they are, instead of as caricatures,” and he challenged unions to hire at least one black worker for each production. Some unions later adopted an apprenticeship program but never carried it out, the N.A.A.C.P. said.
Some within the organization criticized Mr. Tolbert for not immediately insisting on advertising boycotts. But he portrayed himself as a moderate, preferring to press his case using practical arguments.
“We Negroes watch ‘Bonanza’ and buy Chevrolets,” he told a group of broadcast and advertising executives in August 1963. “We watch Disney on RCA sets. Jack Benny entertains us, and we buy General Foods products. Our babies eat Gerber baby foods, and we photograph them with Polaroid cameras.”
“We buy all the advertised products,” he added, “the same as you do.”
That September he noted that there had been some, if halting, progress in the kinds of roles black actors were receiving. But two years later, the N.A.A.C.P.’s national labor secretary, Herbert Hill, complained that what progress had been made had been fleeting.
James Lionel Tolbert was born on Oct. 26, 1926, in New Orleans. He and two of his sisters moved to Los Angeles when he was 10. He enlisted in the Army after he dropped out of high school.
Tony Tolbert confirmed his father’s death, saying the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to his son, Mr. Tolbert is survived by his wife of 55 years, the former Ms. Ross; their daughters, Anita and Alicia; two grandchildren; and two sisters, Martha Taylor and Esther Ford.
Tony Tolbert, who is a lawyer himself and an administrator at the School of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that his father’s law practice was hardly glamorous and that the entertainment work was just a facet of it. The home phone frequently rang late at night with calls from clients who had been arrested and hoped to be bailed out of jail. The Tolbert house nearly always had guests, some for a night, others for six months. Mr. Tolbert rarely said no.
It had an impact on his son. For the last two years, Tony Tolbert has made his own house in Los Angeles available to a struggling family for $1 a month in rent while he lives with his mother.
“He was a save-the-world kind of guy, for sure,” he said of his father.