Most people will not recognize the name, or even the name of the character he is best know for, Ben in the 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead (NotLD).
His role in 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead marked the first time an African American actor was cast as the star of a horror film. He was executive director of the Black Theater Alliance, a federation of theater companies, from 1976 to 1981.
He taught acting styles at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. As executive director of the Richard Allen Center for Culture and Art, he promoted African-American theater. 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.
He died of cardiopulmonary arrest at Winthrop-University Hospital on July 22, 1988.
His most famous character, Ben, was originally to be a gruff, blue collar, rough speaking, determined to survive but not-to-bright Caucasian. Until well spoken, reserved, dignified Mr. Jones auditioned for the part. At that time, it was not typical for an African American man to be the hero of a film when the rest of the cast was composed entirely of white actors and actresses. Social commentators saw that casting as significant; on the other hand, George A. Romero (the director) said that Jones "simply gave the best audition".
Karl Hardman (one of the producers), “The script had been written with the character Ben as a rather simple truck driver. His dialogue was that of a lower class / uneducated person. Duane Jones was a very well educated man and simply refused to do the role as it was written. As I recall, I believe that Duane himself upgraded his own dialogue to reflect how he felt the character should present himself"
The first time I saw NotLD, I was about 10 or 11, it never occurred to me to think about an African American star in a black and white film. Mr. Jones simply embodied the resourceful hero role. I didn't know for years that he tore down preconceived barriers. I only knew that he was a great actor, and his character Ben was... well a bad ass everyman.
Duane Jones died 23 years ago today, He was 52.
Dan Emplit WBFD