Hawthorne James was born in Chicago and lived on 37th and Lake Park. He attended Holy Angels and Hales Franciscan High School until his family moved to a small town in Michigan called Vandalia, where he finished high school. Hawthorne received a scholarship to Notre Dame, and obtained his Bachelors’ degree in theater.
He then went to the University of Michigan and obtained his Masters’ degree. He was offered a scholarship to Yale and Cornell to work on his doctorate. Many people would not know that Hawthorne spent 2 years as a professor of theater at Illinois State University.
After 2 years Hawthorne moved to Los Angeles. He won his first acting competition which caught the eye of Ted Lange, known for his role as Issac the Bartender on the Love Boat. Ted got Hawthorne to move to London, England on a scholarship where James studied at the London Shakespeare Academy.
He moved back to LA worked many odd jobs including washing cars and making reservations while performing in several local plays at the Inner City Cultural Center run by his mentor C. Bernard Jackson.
Hawthorne was offered his first non-union movie role working with famed producer Rudy Ray Moore who produced films such as; Dolemite, Disco Godfather and Petey Wheatstraw. James’s first role in The Disco Godfather, he made $50.00 a day doing something that he loved. His first unionized movies were roles in The Color Purple and Penitentiary II.
After doing countless plays including touring throughout the country Hawthorne decided to take a break. During that break, Hawthorne was urged to take a role in Macbeth that he was very reluctant to take. His life was forever changed when Robert Townsend came to see his long time friend Tim in the play Macbeth but was amazed at Hawthorne’s performance.
Hawthorne was offered the role of “Big Red” in Robert Townsend’s movie The Five Heartbeats. Many people do not know that the Funeral scene where Big Red goes to console Eleanor played by Diahann Carroll, Jimmy’s wife, was based on a scene from Shakespeare’s play Richard III.
The scene was not depicted in the original version of the script. But Hawthorne who studied at the London’s Shakespeare Academy championed to add the scene, and he won. Not a day goes by when Hawthorne is not recognized on the streets for his role as “Big Red” and also his role in the movie Speed.
Hawthorne James appeared in over 300 plays, countless movies, television shows as well as his hand in writing, producing and directing movies such as Remember Me? and Lisa Trotter written by Sam Greenlee. Hawthorne worked with producer Tariq Alexander on a film called Stick Kids which was produced by Tariq and directed by James.
Coming up for James is a movie called A Day of Trouble and Keys. He was also working with R&B singer Mýa on a T.V show called The Fifth Ward. In honor of the 27th anniversary of The Five Heartbeats, Robert Townsend produced a documentary entitled Making the Five Heartbeats, which premiered across the U.S. in over 500 theaters on August 27, 2018.
December 1, 1951
- Hawthorne James is known to have launched his acting career when he moved to Los Angeles. After taking part in several stage competitions, he eventually won one and this brought him in contact with the African-American actor Ted Lange. Upon Ted's persuasion, Hawthorne secured a scholarship to study acting to better hone his skills at the London Shakespeare Academy. He successfully completed his program there and moved back to LA to continue his career.
- Prior to starting a career as an actor, Hawthorne was notable for being a professor at Illinois State University. He held this position for about two years during which he taught Theatre at the University.
- After several years of featuring in movies and plays with little or no recognition, Hawthorne decided to take some time off acting. It was however during his break that he was persuaded to take on a role in the play Macbeth to which he reluctantly agreed. On the fateful day of his performance, the popular filmmaker, Robert Townsend was among the audience and he was intrigued with Hawthorne’s acting.
- Subsequently, the actor was made an offer by Townsend to depict the character of Big Red in his movie The Five Heartbeats. More so, Hawthorne made a very significant contribution to the film which got a lot of people praising his initiative. The actor proposed that an additional scene be included in the movie where his character, Big Red visits the bereaved character, Eleanor to extend his condolence. Hawthorne got this idea from a notable play of Shakespeare named Richard III and it ended up being approved by the director of The Five Heartbeats.