Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee, Adolph Caesar was a trailblazer in the entertainment industry. Perhaps best known for his masterful performances in A Soldier’s Story (1984) and The Color Purple (1985), Caesar had an extensive acting career and is one of the most important actors in American history.
He was born on December 5, 1933 in Harlem, New York City as the youngest of three sons and was of Dominican descent. Even from a young age, Caesar was impassioned about a career in acting. At age 12, he contracted laryngitis which led to his notably deep voice. Caesar once recalled that after his voice recovered, “girls didn’t want to see me . . . they just wanted to call up and hear my voice.”
After Caesar graduated from George Washington High School in New York City in 1952, he joined the U.S. Navy where he served as a hospital corpsman for five years before breaking into the theater. Caesar would go on to study drama at New York University, graduating in 1962.
Caesar’s first role would come in 1969 when he was cast to play Juan Almeida in the film Che!. A year later, Caesar became an announcer for and then joined the Negro Ensemble Co. in 1970 for productions such as “The River Niger,” “Square Root of the Soul” and “The Brownsville Raid.” Caesar also later worked with the Minnesota Theater Co., Inner City Repertory Co., and the American Shakespeare Co.
In a New York Times interview, Caesar once recalled a conversation he had with a director. “After I did one season at a Shakespearean repertory company, a director said to me, ‘You have a marvelous voice. You know the king’s English well. You speak iambic pentameter. My suggestion is that you go to New York and get a good colored role.’” Caesar’s resonant and yet dulcet vocal range would aid him in his early acting endeavors, while also establishing him as a distinct addition, into the American and African American pantheon.
In addition, between 1972 through1978, Caesar provided voice over work for a variety of films, such as: J. D.’s Revenge, Karate Kiba, Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle Sister Street Fighter, Hammer, Blacula, Scream Blacula Scream and Dawn of the Dead and also starred in films such as The Hitter and Fist of Fear, Touch of Death.
Caesar’s most iconic work, however started with his role as Army Sergeant. Vernon C. Waters in Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stage drama, A Soldier’s Play, in which Caesar won Drama Desk Award for featured actor and an Obie Award for outstanding off-Broadway achievement. A Soldier’s Story is set in Louisiana during World War II, just before the U.S. military was desegregated. In both the play and the film, Caesar portrays Army Sergeant. Vernon C. Waters, a complex, yet familiar, African American who strives to seek equality and recognition for African Americans within the confines of virulent white supremacy, even and especially at the expense behind those who Waters believed were a hindrance to the race.
In a 1985 Los Angeles Times interview, Caesar explained what informed his portrayal of the hard-edged Waters. “A painful experience of my own led me to Waters,” Caesar told the The Los Angeles Times. “I’d studied Shakespeare to death. I knew more about Shakespeare than Shakespeare knew about himself. After I did one season at a Shakespearean repertory company, a director said to me, ‘You have a marvelous voice. You know the king’s English well. You speak iambic pentameter. My suggestion is that you go to New York and get a good colored role. Waters has tried his best, but no matter what you do, they still hate you.” Such a slight. however, did not stop him as Caesar’s resonant and yet dulcet vocal range would aid him in his early acting endeavors, while also establishing him as a distinct addition, into the American and African American pantheon.
A Soldier’s Play was adapted into the iconic film, A Soldier’s Story, in which Caesar reprised his role as Army Sergeant Waters to critical and historical acclaim. Caesar performance in the film earned him numerous accolades, including nominations for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor and he received the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture for his contributions to the film.
Unfortunately, at the age of 52, while working in Los Angeles on the set of the 1986 film, Tough Guys, Caesar suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack on set. The acting legend was interred in the Fern Cliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Caesar was survived by his wife, Diane Caesar and their children Tiffani, Alexandria Jack, and his brother, Herbie.