The casting of Wes Studi, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, as the lead in Geronimo: An American Legend settles an old score with Hollywood. In 1962, The Rifleman star Chuck Connors temporarily laid aside his identity as a blonde, blue-eyed actor and took on the role of Geronimo. While Connors shared a photographic likeness to that Native American, the casting was mainly in disregard to the character’s ethnicity. Hollywood has grown somewhat more sensitive since then but crossing the race line has an interesting history that’s not always as funny as Tropic Thunder.
• Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
A blight on an otherwise flawless film, Rooney’s portrayal of Holly Golightly’s irascible Japanese landlord couldn’t be more insensitive — and that’s before you even factor in the prosthetic eye makeup and false teeth.
• Shirley MacLaine in My Geisha (1962)
To win the role in a movie inspired by Madame Butterfly, MacLaine’s character disguises herself as a Japanese woman. Besides contact lenses to change the color of her iris, MacLaine underwent a complicated and painful makeup process to change the shape of her eyes.
• Sir Lawrence Olivier in Othello (1965)
This notorious performance three years after Connors’ Geronimo is part of what Robert Downey Jr. was spoofing in Tropic Thunder; with heavy dark make-up, Olivier was one of the last white actors to play this role.
• Eddie Murphy in Coming to America (1988)
Before the Wayans Brothers in White Chicks, Murphy had already experimenting with going white. In Coming to America, among his multiple roles is an elderly Jewish New Yorker.