An emergency landed Ernest Fredric Morrison on a film set when he was just an infant, about three years old. The original child actor hired for that particular role would not stop crying and producers had a tough time working with him.
Morrison’s father, Joseph Morrison, who worked for a wealthy Los Angeles family, had connections in the film industry, and a crew member of what would be his son’s film debut was his friend.
This crew member asked him to bring along his son, who would perform incredibly well on set that he earned the nickname, “Sunshine Sammy.” His career was born right there, and he became the first black actor to sign a long-term film contract, as well as, the first black child actor.
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From his film debut – the 1916’s The Soul of a Child, a feature would eventually be created for him called “The Sunshine Sammy Series” when he was just 4 years old.
In subsequent years, he became famous as a member of the original Little Rascals – the troublesome gang of street-smart kids that entertained several generations in films and on television. Morrison was also well known as one of the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids, and probably the most experienced actor of that group.
Born on December 20, 1912, in New Orleans, Louisiana, to a family of five, Morrison, between 1917 and 1922, was mainly paired with another popular child star of the silent era, Baby Marie Osborne. By 1920, Morrison had appeared in films with comedians such as Harold Lloyd and was later paired with Snub Pollard in a series of one-reel comedies.
When “The Sunshine Sammy Series” was created for him, only one segment was produced, but observers believed that the feature influenced comedy producer Hal Roach to produce the “Our Gang” film shorts, which were later shown on television and were otherwise known as the “Little Rascals.”
Morrison made his “Our Gang” debut in the 1922 short, “One Terrible Day”, which was apparently the debut for most of the original members. Morrison appeared in 28 episodes between 1922 and 1924 before accepting an offer to perform full time in New York vaudeville shows, writes the Los Angeles Times.
“The picture business was great. Our Gang? We all got along. No Problems. And when we weren’t working, we were playing. And when we were working, we were playing! Hal Roach, Harold Lloyd, Bob McGowan- they didn’t make it a job, they made it fun. It was a beautiful childhood,” Morrison said in an interview.
As the oldest member of the comedy gang, sources say that Morrison earned $10,000 a year, making him the highest paid Black actor in Hollywood. In New York, the youngster performed for 16 years before returning to Los Angeles where he was a regular in the “Dead End Kids” and “East Side Kids.”
When World War II began, Morrison was drafted into the army, where he appeared as a singer-dancer-comedian for troops stationed in the South Pacific, said the report by Los Angeles Times.
After the war, Morrison rejected a series of offers from movie producers and for several years, he stayed away from show business, saying that he was no more interested. For 17 years, he worked as a quality control inspector for an aerospace company in Compton.
“A lot of people have asked me what happened to the coloured boy, Sunshine Leo Morrison, who played Scruno in the East Side Kids. He now has a highly technical job in a missile plant,” wrote Leo Gorcey in his 1967 memoir, An original Dead End Kid presents: dead end yells, wedding bells, cockle shells, and dizzy spells.
Morrison turned down series of roles until he played The Messenger in a first season episode of the Norman Lear TV sitcom Good Times in 1974. Appearing in 145 motion pictures, Morrison was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1987. He passed away at St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood, Calif., at the age of 76.
Check out one of his earliest appearances: