He was born in Harlem and, after his father abandoned his family, was moved by his mother to relatives in Jamaica, where he learned many of the calypso songs that became the foundation of his success as a singer in the 1950s. As an actor in the American Negro Theater he came up at the same time as Sidney Poitier, a lifelong friend (and sometimes rival). He won a Tony in 1951 for his role in the show “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac” and began appearing in such movies as “Bright Road,” “Carmen Jones,” and “Island in the Sun.”
His friendship with Paul Robeson and his increasingly outspoken stance on social issues did not go down well in the red-baiting blacklist era. Neither did his position as one of the few black performers in Hollywood to appear in movies as a dramatic lead. Among the most attractive of actors, he was carefully shielded from even a hint of any romantic onscreen involvements with white actresses.
At the height of his singing fame he was not allowed to stay in the Las Vegas hotels where he headlined. In Hollywood, he would be stopped by police in Beverly Hills while taking a stroll. As his friend Diahann Carroll, who also appeared in “Carmen Jones,” says about the lack of opportunity for black actors in Hollywood: “We were not there to have a film career. We were renting space.”