I love people. You’ve got to keep that love in your heart for your fellow man. You ain’t no more than me, and I ain’t no more than you. We’re all God’s children.
~Scatman Crothers, 1980.
In 1910, when Hally’s Comet streaked across the sky, Scatman Crothers was born in Terre Haute, Indiana.
You likely remember him as the telepathic mentor from 1980’s The Shining or as the night custodian in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Fans of classic television won’t forget Louie on Chico and the Man. Younger adults might recognize his rasping, melodic voice as Jazz from The Transformers or maybe you’ll hear Hong Long Phooey himself.
Scatman Crothers, born and raised in Terre Haute, Indiana, was a renaissance Hoosier, who had as many talents as the entertainment industry could handle: singer, drummer, pianist, guitar player, and one of Hollywood’s most beloved character actors.All self-taught.
Benjamin “Scatman” Crothers thrived through some of the harshest events in Indiana history. In 1913, when Scatman was only three, a tornado tore through the city on Easter Sunday, killing almost two dozen Hoosiers. This tragedy was immediately followed by the Great Flood of 1913, which finished what the tornado started.
At age 13, Benjamin Crothers started earning his way in the city’s many speakeasies. Entirely self-taught, he started out as a popular gig drummer, working through the night and making his living on tips. Bands discovered Crothers could play almost any instrument you put in his hands, and play it well. He didn’t get rich but he made a living. For a musician, that’s about as good as it gets.
In June of 1923, while Crothers was working clubs, the largest KKK rally in Indiana took place in Terre Haute, with over 75,000 in attendance. This event ended with the burning of six, 30-foot crosses. The spectacle must have terrified Crothers and his family, but he kept working. His reputation as a talented musician, particularly in the emerging genres of swing and jazz, got around.
Terre Haute. They used to call it ‘Terrible Hut’ because it was so wide open. Gambling, red light district, speak-easies. I entertained for all the gangsters. Can’t name a gangster that didn’t come into the place where I worked. Got no salary. But the lady I was working with who played the piano, we had a box with a picture of a cat on it and a sign that read: ‘Feed the kitty.’
~Scatman Crothers, 1975
In the 1930s, he left Indiana for Ohio, where he hosted a Dayton radio show during the day and performed at night. His preternatural ability for scat-singing, popularized by Louis Armstrong, earned him the nickname “Scatman” Crothers. It didn’t take long for the West Coast to recognize his talents and Scatman moved his new family to his longest and last home, California.
In the 1940s, he supported the war effort by performing in USO shows with Bob Hope. His band, The Ramparts, had a hit in 1955 with the tragic and timely hit, “The Death of Emmet Till.” His success in the music business catapulted him to film and television in the 1950s and 1960s. He starred in hundreds of roles in television (Bonanza, Dragnet, Chico and the Man among them) and film (including Porgy and Bess, The Great White Hope, The Aristocrats).
Contrary to most entertainment careers, his most memorable roles came in the last ten years of his life. He had become close friends with actor Jack Nicholson before Nicholson had become, well, JACK. To say Nicholson “got” parts for Scatman Crothers would be a mistake; Scatman had been in the entertainment business since the 1920s and Hollywood since the 1950s. By the time he starred in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Crothers was already a familiar face in film and television, and all without training. “I didn’t go to any drama schools. It’s a gift from God. You just have to be yourself,” Crothers said.
He did a total of four movies with Nicholson, but it was Crothers’ turn in The Shining that solidified his celebrity. Although largely a character actor, the dense part in the horror classic demonstrated the depth of Crothers’ abilities as an actor. For fans of the film, the part when Nicholson’s character leaps out of the hallway and…Well, if you’ve watched it, you know the part I’m talking about. It broke the hearts of filmgoers: THAT’S a sign of talent.
To friends, Crothers was a mountain of kindness masking a mountain of raw talent. Kind, patient, and hardworking, he was easily one of the most relaxed men in the industry, largely because he had worked his way up the Hollywood ladder all on his own.
A lot of people in Hollywood are on that ego trip. They think they’re more than somebody else. I’ve told a lot of stars in my career, ‘Hey, man you’re looking down on the people who made you. lf you keep doing that, you’re gonna fall back down.’
Producers fought to get a piece of Scatman after The Shining, but his good fortune didn’t last. In 1982, doctors diagnosed the 72-year-old Crothers with lung cancer, the result of a lifetime of smoking. He kept the diagnosis and treatment quiet, afraid his illness would affect his employability. It didn’t. He enjoyed parts in movies like The Adventures of Natty Gann and Twilight Zone: the Movie.
He even starred in three separate television series and continued to do voice-over work, most famously the Autobot Jazz from the 1980’s Transformers franchise. It’s largely because of these memorable roles in the mid-70s to mid-80s that Crothers became a familiar, grandfatherly figure for an entire generation.
In 1986, cancer had spread into his esophagus, silencing his famous, melodic voice, and he died later that year of pnemonia. Hundreds attended his funeral at Forest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills.
And in 1986, Halley’s Comet once again appeared again in our night sky, as the 76-year-old Benjamin “Scatman” Crothers was laid to rest.