Raymond St. Jacques was on the forefront of actors who first helped lower the racial divide in the world of television. Known for starring in the final season of Rawhide as cattle rider Simon Blake, Jacques was the very first black actor to ever be cast in a leading role in a western series. It was a monumental moment in history that paved the way for others after him, but the actor also dedicated his life to raising awareness for more equal representation in the film industry in general.
Raymond St. Jacques
Raymond St. Jacques, originally named James Arthur Johnson, was born in Hartford but grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. His mother worked hard to help put him through Yale University where he studied psychology as well as drama. Following college, he started regularly working as a fencing master in Shakespearean festivals in Connecticut, California, and New York, before finally settling in New York City where he began to pursue acting work.
While studying at the Actors Studio, Jacques supported himself through modeling and dishwashing work until he was able to land his big break in the off-Broadway production of The Blacks in 1961. Starring opposite likes of Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, and Maya Angelou, Jacques had officially made his debut in the entertainment world. Just a few years later, he made his feature film debut in Black Like Me and set out to pursue his career in Hollywood.
Over the years, Jacques appeared in numerous noteworthy films including The Comedians with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, The Green Berets with John Wayne, Cotton Comes to Harlem, The Pawnbroker, Change of Mind, Uptight, Cool Breeze, Book of Numbers, and Come Back, Charleston Blue. He also appeared in various TV shows like The Virginian, Falcon Crest, Daniel Boone, Little House on the Prairie, and Superior Court.
Though he was only in the one season of Rawhide, it was a noteworthy performance. It was the final season, where Clint Eastwood's character Rowdy was able to step in as trail boss after the exit of Eric Fleming. 1965 was literally the first year a television network ever cast a Black man in a leading role on one of their westerns. A big moment for not only Jacques but Black actors in general in Hollywood at the time. It led to other notable castings like Otis Young landing a lead role in The Outcasts just a few years later. Jacques didn't take this opportunity for granted and spent the rest of his career being vocal about having more racial equality on sets in front of and behind the camera.
As a passionate activist, Jacques was very open about how little representation Black actors received in Hollywood. In an interview from 1970, the actor reflected on his time working on The Green Berets and how he had to fight to make sure his character wasn't stereotyped as well as advocate for Black actors to appear as extras. It seems only fitting that he later had the opportunity to play abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Glory and Martin Luther King in The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.
Like people all over the world, Jacques was profoundly affected by the March on Washington in 1963. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1988, he reflected on where he was when he found out that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and how it affected him personally.
''I was shooting a movie called If He Hollers Let Him Go. It's the only time in my life I've walked off the set of a picture. And the producers didn't know what to do. I just couldn't work. I went back to them and humbly apologized, but I said you must understand; a member of the family is gone.''
At the age of 60, Jacques passed away in Los Angeles, California after complications with lymphoma. His final two film roles were released posthumously, Voodoo Dawn and Timebomb. Raymond St. Jacques will always be a shining example of standing up for racial equality in the complicated world of Hollywood and paving the way for future generations.