Lee died in 1952 at the age of 45. In those 45 years, he had managed to be a musical prodigy, a jockey, a boxer, a Broadway actor and a film star. His last role—and the one that many think led to his early death—was that of blacklist victim.
Lee is perhaps best remembered for two productions fostered by Orson Welles, back when the latter was the youthful wunderkind of Broadway. (The two met when Lee broke up a potential fight between Welles and a group of young toughs outside a theatre where Lee was starring in Stevedore.) Lee played Banquo in Welles' famous Haiti-set "Voo-doo Macbeth" in 1936. In 1942, he played the lead role of Bigger Thomas in Welles' production of Native Son, a play based on the Richard Wright novel.
The Harlem native fell into acting only after a boxing career was ended by a punch which blinded him in one eye. Prior to that, he was a piano and violin prodigy at 11 and a professional jockey at 13.
Native Son led to stage roles in South Pacific (the play), Anna Lucasta, Margaret Webster's production of The Tempest and On Whitman Avenue (which he also co-produced) and film parts in Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" and "Body and Soul" with John Garfield.
Soon, however, he was mentioned as a communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee. His career received a death knell when columnist Ed Sullivan, a one-time supporter, denounced him in print. Smith states that Lee's death is "one of a handful directly attributed to the blacklist." "Becoming Something ," running at 370 pages, will be released on Aug. 19, and is priced at $27.