Duane Jones was an American actor who made history as the first Black lead in a horror film. He played Ben, the heroic protagonist of George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. He was also a director, educator, and activist who promoted African-American theater and culture. He died of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 51. Here is his story.
Early Life and Education
Duane Jones was born on April 11, 1937 in New York City to Mildred Jones (née Gordon). He had a sister, Marva (later Marva Brooks), and a brother, Henry. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a B.A. and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, before training as an actor in New York City. He later completed an M.A. in Communications at New York University in between shooting Night of the Living Dead.
Jones’ role in Night of the Living Dead marked the first time an African-American actor was cast as the star and hero of a horror film, and one of the first times in American cinema where an important role was given to a Black actor when the script did not explicitly call for one. While some saw the casting as significant, director George A. Romero stated Jones’ race was not a factor in his casting; Romero cast him simply because “Jones was the best actor we met to play Ben.” [according to Wikipedia]
Jones continued working in film after Night of the Living Dead in Ganja & Hess (1973), Losing Ground (1982), and Beat Street (1984), among others. Despite his other film roles, Jones worried that people only recognized him as Ben.
From 1972 to 1976, Jones oversaw the literature department at Antioch College. He was subsequently executive director of the Black Theater Alliance, a federation of theater companies, from 1976 through 1981 and continued working as a theater actor and director, until his death in 1988. As executive director of the Richard Allen Center for Culture and Art (RACCA), he promoted African-American theater. He also taught acting styles at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. After leaving the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he taught a select group of students privately in Manhattan, by invitation only. His hand-selected students were of diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Duane Jones Cause of Death
Jones died of cardiopulmonary arrest at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, Long Island, New York, on July 22, 1988, aged 51. He was cremated and his ashes given to his family. The Duane L. Jones Recital Hall at State University of New York at Old Westbury is named after him.
Jones is remembered as a boundary-breaking Black actor who paved the way for future generations of performers and filmmakers. His portrayal of Ben in Night of the Living Dead is widely regarded as one of the most iconic and influential roles in horror cinema. He is also celebrated for his contributions to African-American theater and culture, as well as his academic and educational achievements. He is survived by his sister Marva Brooks and his nephew Duane E. Brooks Jr., who is also an actor.
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