Mormon film director Hal Ashby (left) on the set of The Last Detail (1973) with the film's stars, Otis Young and Jack Nicholson (a lapsed Catholic). This Academy Award-nominated movie was Otis Young's best known film role. Photo source: Patrick McGilligan, Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, page 3 of photo plate section 2, just after page 320.
Saturday October 20, 2001
Otis Young, the first black actor to co-star in a television Western series--"The Outcasts" in the 1968-69--has died. He was 69.
Young, who later became an ordained minister and a community college professor, died Oct. 12 of a stroke in Los Angeles.
Young's best-known movie role was as a career sailor transporting a prisoner to the brig with Jack Nicholson in the 1973 movie "The Last Detail." But he was a relative unknown when he landed a co-starring role in "The Outcasts," an hourlong Western that ran on ABC for one season. The series co-starred Don Murray as a former Confederate officer and former slave owner who had lost everything during the Civil War and teamed up with Young's character, a former slave who became a bounty hunter.
Produced during a time of racial unrest in the United States, "The Outcasts" depicted an interracial relationship in which blacks and whites lived together--but not without an underlying and sometimes open hostility toward one another.
"Even though they worked together as bounty hunters, we never lost the awareness between our characters," Murray said. " . . . It never got to be a buddy-buddy, 'I Spy' thing at all."
Young was the only unknown among a number of well-known black actors who did screen tests with Murray for the part.
"He just stood out among all the rest because he was the one actor who was totally unapologetic about this hostility" between the two characters, Murray recalled.
Young's concerns over his portrayal extended to the scripts. In a 1990 interview with Sh-Boom magazine, he recalled that he was required to play "a real tough black cowboy, but they also wanted me to say things that a black man wouldn't say."
In one episode, he and Murray found some children whose parents had been killed by Indians. "So we bury the parents and I said a prayer," Young recalled. "My partner in the scene looked at me and said, 'Gee, Jemal, I didn't know you could pray like that.' In the script, my reply was, 'Well, there's nothing like darkies for praying.' "
Young recalled in the interview that while the scene was being shot, a group of 60 black children from Watts were visiting the set. "Here was these kids watching this black cowboy in action, and I didn't feel that line was valid for the character, so I refused to say it," he said.
Murray said "The Outcasts" debuted shortly after the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and during a time of urban riots and the rise of the Black Panthers. And though the show received good reviews, he said, "a lot of the audience felt very uncomfortable turning it on and seeing these two guys so hostile to each other, even when saving each other's lives."
In the end, the political climate of the times hurt the show's ratings.
Born in Providence, R.I., Young was one of 14 children. He joined the Marine Corps at 17, and after serving in the Korean War he enrolled in acting classes at New York University on the GI Bill.
He appeared in the off-Broadway production of "In a Garden" at the Penthouse Theatre in New York in 1956. He studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Drama in New York in 1960 and appeared in numerous theater productions in New York and Los Angeles.
Young continued to act occasionally in the 1980s, including a role in the 1981 miniseries "Palmerstown USA," but his daughter, Saudia Young, said her father finally stopped pursuing his acting career.
"His focus became more spiritual," she said.
Young earned a bachelor's degree from L.I.F.E. Bible College in Los Angeles in 1983. The same year, he became an intern pastor at Angelus Temple (International Church of the Foursquare Gospel) in Los Angeles. From 1986 to 1988, he served as senior pastor of the Elim Foursquare Gospel Church in Rochester, N.Y.
Murray, who remained a close friend of his former co-star, said he noticed a change in Young's sometimes volatile personality, which had once led to arguments on the set.
"One of the great things about Otis was he had a great sense of humor, and even when he was being totally crazy [with anger], five minutes later he'd start laughing. After his conversion, he still had that sense of humor, but he just seemed to have lost all of that terrible anger that made him difficult to work with. So there was a tremendous change in him; it was like night and day," Murray said.
In the late 1980s, Young taught acting at the School Without Walls in Rochester and the art of preaching at Rochester Bible College.
In 1992, he received a master's degree in communications from the State University of New York at Brockport. And from 1989 until his retirement in 1999, he taught speech and communications at Monroe Community College in Rochester, where he also taught theater and directed student productions.
Young wrote nine plays, including "Right On Brother," a drama of ghetto life in which he starred as a disabled folk singer, at the Oxford Theater in Hollywood in 1969.
He moved back to Los Angeles last October. His daughter said he was working on an autobiography and writing plays, and had planned to begin teaching speech classes at Los Angeles Valley College in January.
He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and children El Mahdi, Jemal Lucien, Lovelady and Saudia.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. today at the chapel at Pepperdine University.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to the Otis Young Memorial Fund, which will benefit the Twin Towers Orphan Fund. Information is available on the Web site www.ttof.org, or by calling (661) 633-9076.