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Watch These Great Harry Belafonte Screen Performances

With the death of Harry Belafonte, America lost an icon of musical genius and activism who rose from a life of poverty to become one of the biggest names in record sales and concerts, capitalizing on his performer’s fame to articulate a cause in which he believes.

But Belafonte was also a major movie star, and while he didn’t have a lot of films—remarkably, he appeared in fewer than two dozen feature films in his 65-year career—he made every appearance. Both made unforgettable impressions on screen. Here are some highlights, all playable.

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Belafonte’s first leading role is only his second film appearance, having previously had a supporting role in Dorothy Dandridge’s car “Bright Road.” He teamed up again with Dandridge to adapt Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical “Carmen Jones” to Bizet. Bizet’s classic opera “Carmen Jones,” modernized and reimagined for an all-black cast. The production is known for its frenzy, but Belafonte couldn’t have asked for a project better suited to his talents: the picture gave him the chance to express and smolder as young Soldier Joe, proving that it wasn’t just a pop singer’s part-time job in the film . This is the work of a full-fledged movie star.

However, Belafonte’s first works were short-lived. After some excellent dramatic turns in the late 1950s (most notably Robert Wise’s “Tomorrow’s Odds,” sadly unplayable), Belafonte devoted his time in the 1960s to in his civil rights activism. But he makes a triumphant comeback in this delightfully quirky comedy as the title character – an honest and good-natured guardian angel who comes to earth to help a poor Jewish tailor (the wonderful Zero Mostel) through his troubles Bad luck and dishonesty. The material could easily turn sentimental or profane, but Belafonte’s playful and practical performance strikes the perfect balance of winking wit and gentle lessons.

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Belafonte’s comedic style in “Angel Levine” would define some of his best screen work of the 1970s. Two years later, he teamed up with his fellow actor and activist Sidney Poitier on “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” apparently intended as a Blake riff Duan, Poitier and Belafonte play the titular role of the Wild West outlaw leading a wagon away from white bounty hunters. Poitiers plays the straight guy, as he often does in comedy, and lets Belafonte play the Reverend Willis Oakes Rutherford, a crook who masquerades as a civilian man. When original director Joseph Sargent was fired just days after filming, Poitiers took over as director and began a new film career.

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Unsurprisingly, when Poitiers directed his next comedy, he found Belafonte again to be involved. Poitiers co-stars with Bill Cosby in this rowdy bro action comedy (fair warning) that lets Belafonte steal a lot of scenes — with Flip Wilson Wilson was no easy feat when he starred alongside Richard Pryor — in his boisterous turn as Geechie Dan Beauford, a hot-tempered mob boss. As moviegoers remember “The Godfather,” Belafonte plays the role as a spoof of Marlon Brando’s already iconic Don Vito Corleone performance, complete with raspy voice, bulging cheeks and pencil-thin beard. It’s an inspired comedic performance and a reminder that no-nonsense performers are just as comfortable with broad “Saturday Night Live”-style silliness.

Play on Amazon Prime and Arrow Player. Rent or buy on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play and YouTube.

Belafonte took a nearly 20-year hiatus from screen acting after “Uptown,” but even so, he made his own debut in two star-studded Robert Altman films (“The Player” and “Ready to Wear”). But Altman gets another great full-length performance from the performers in this gangster comedy set in the city and time of the director’s youth. As a Kansas City underworld boss with a rare name and a perpetual whisperer, Belafonte eschews his usual enthusiasm and comedic leanings to play a truly menacing villain—the kind who never raises his voice. Man, because he never had to. It’s a chilling and haunting turn, showing the kind of third act he could have had as a character actor had he chosen that path.

Play on Vudu. Rent or buy on Amazon and Apple TV.

Instead, he chose to keep fighting. This late-life biographical documentary from director Susanne Rostock was produced with his participation and blessing, occasionally turning to hagiography to skip the messier aspects of his long and complicated life . But there’s so much to celebrate that you can hardly blame its makers. A snappy clip cut from a wealth of archival material (film and TV clips, home movies, newsreels) and new and archival interviews, “Sing Your Songs” celebrates the artist Belafonte, but more importantly, the Man — and someone who has spent his life working for a cause he believes in, often putting his career and comfort at risk.

Rent or buy on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.

Remarkably, Belafonte’s final film came amidst the protest work of a provocative black filmmaker. He cameos as civil rights activist Jerome Turner in Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Ron Stallers’ memoir, but he’s also playing himself, imparting the history and knowledge of the civil rights struggle. In his haunting single scene, Belafonte not only displays his skill and charisma as an actor, but also the gravitas of decades of fighting in the trenches.

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