So why did I think of Ken Renard today? Ken was a dignified older gentleman who worshiped at ABC for at least ten years. His picture appears in ABC pictorial directories from both 1979 and 1989. Any old-time ABCer will recognize his face from this photo, but no one would say they knew him very well. Ken was friendly, but very quiet and retiring. He came to church, entered into the worship, then went home. Ken died in 1993 at the age of 87; there is a simple grave marker in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery that reads “KEN RENARD, ACTOR.”
Ah, that’s why I thought of Ken today. The first time I visited Ken in his home, I was surprised by two things. One was the meticulous gardening around his house on Casitas Avenue. Ken had a way with roses, and he spent hours every week bringing out the best blooms from all his prized plants. The second thing that surprised me was that the four walls of his den were covered with still shots from movies he had acted in throughout the years. This humble, retiring old friend had spent his whole life pursuing an acting career. Judy and I just watched the SAG (Screen Actors’ Guild) Awards show over the weekend, which honored people who had excelled in acting during 2013. The spotlight was on the big stars who were glowing in their moment of acclaim. But there was also the recognition that many SAG-represented members have spent all their working years in the shadows, and for them the union has meant a living wage, healthcare insurance and retirement provisions. I wouldn’t be surprised if SAG paid for Ken’s grave marker in the cemetery that is also the resting place of Marilyn Monroe, Eddie Albert, Fanny Brice, Eve Arden, Truman Capote, Richard Basehart, Darryl F. Zanuck and many other industry greats.
I spent quite a bit of time today studying Ken’s life history online. It wasn’t easy. I couldn’t find a word about his personal life, except that he was born in Trinidad and Tobago and that his original name was Kenneth Fitzroy Renwick. But there was a lot of information about his professional life in movies and TV shows. Ken was credited as a cast member in fifty-five different productions, between the years of 1941 and 1982. His earliest films were in all-black productions for an urban African-American audience. Later, in mainstream films, he was always cast in small roles that required someone who was non-white. He played many Native Americans in westerns, as well as Indians (from India), a Fiji Islander, a Siamese, an African tribal leader and numerous Caribbean islanders (including Toussaint L’Overture, the first President of Haiti who interacted with the first five U.S. Presidents and abolished slavery in his new republic). The films in which he performed include Home from the Hills, Adventures in Paradise, True Grit and Exorcist II. Among his TV credits are episodes of Gunsmoke, Tarzan, Mannix, Daniel Boone, Perry Mason and Adam-12.
I was able to find two sites where I could actually watch Ken in action, and both were instructive. In a 1970 episode of Ironsides, Raymond Burr discovers that Ken is literally the butler who done it (http://www.imdb.com/video/hulu/vi2419917337?ref_=nm_rvd_vi_2), and Ken’s demeanor reminded me of the modern expression of this stereotype in the current movie “The Butler.” The other site I discovered allowed me to watch an extraordinary 1948 all-black film called Killer Diller, which featured vaudeville-style performances by Butterfly McQueen, Moms Mabley, the Clark Brothers and Nat “King” Cole (then 25). Ken appears near the end as “The Voodoo Man.” (https://archive.org/details/killer_diller)
Which brings me to the other reason why Ken came to my mind today. I’m writing on the National holiday that honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ken’s career is an example of how the struggle for equality played out in one specific profession. I discovered a historical article that refers to Ken:
“Fear of reaction prompted General Motors, sponsors in 1964 of the Western series Bonanza, to threaten withdrawal from the program should an episode starring black actors William Marshall, Fria Hartman, and Ken Renard be aired. After confrontations with NBC and the NAACP, as well as considerable negative publicity, General Motors reversed its position. The episode, ‘Enter Thomas Bowers,’ was telecast on April 26 as scheduled.” (“Blacks and White TV: African Americans in Television Since 1948,” by J. Fred MacDonald)
So, in his humble, quiet way, Ken Renard was part of the struggle that still goes on in our society.
The word “Hollywood” speaks of glamorous red carpets, ostentatious lifestyles and outsized personalities. But those of us who live nearby have discovered that most people in the industry live simple, honest lives and have values and beliefs that are close to our own. After all the lights go down and the sparkle wears off, where does a typical Hollywood person go to rediscover who he is? Ken Renard’s answer seems to have been — to his church roots and his roses.
— Pastor George Van Alstine