Avon Long was a renowned African-American performer who, as a film actor, enjoyed two distinct periods of work in Hollywood, each reflecting the racial sensibilities of the particular era involved. Long was born in Baltimore, MD, in 1910. He was drawn to performing at an early age. He first broke into fame at the Cotton Club in New York in the mid-'30s. Lena Horne credited Long with taking her out of the chorus line at the club, at age 16, and the two later introduced the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler song "As Long As I Live." By the end of the decade, he'd made his Broadway debut in Black Rhythm (1939), and three years later he took on the role of Sportin' Life in the revival of Porgy and Bess, a portrayal he later revived and immortalized in the subsequent Columbia Records' studio cast recording of the work (which is considered one of the definitive versions of the piece). His Broadway credits of this period also included Beggar's Holiday.
Long's movie credits began in 1946 with Centennial Summer and an appearance in Ziegfeld Follies, and two years later he was seen in the Doris Day vehicle Romance on the High Seas. In keeping with the custom and movie industry policies of the time in connection with African-American performers, his work in these movies was confined to short-duration specialty numbers. He was also seen in a 1957 Hallmark Hall of Fame television presentation of Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures in a cast that also included William Warfield, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, and Butterfly McQueen. Long didn't work on the big screen again, however, until 1968 with Francis Ford Coppola's Finian's Rainbow. By that time, the movie business had transformed itself, especially in its use of African-American performers, and over the next 15 years Long didn't lack for work, appearing in The Sting and Harry and Tonto, among other films. His biggest successes, however, were on-stage, where worked in such Broadway productions as Fly, Blackbird (1972). Most notably, he was cast in the role of Dave in Don't Play Us Cheap (1973) on Broadway, a portrayal that earned him a Tony Award nomination. Along with most of the rest of the stage cast, he subsequently re-created his role in Melvin Van Peebles' film of the piece. His biggest stage success followed three years later, when he played the role of John in Bubbling Brown Sugar, which ran for over 700 performances on Broadway. In later years, he played prominent supporting parts in television productions such as Roots: The Next Generations (as Chicken George) and continued to work in movies such as Trading Places. Long died of cancer in 1984 at age 73, but his legacy lingers on, especially from occasional reissues of his best work, such as the DVD of Don't Play Us Cheap and Sony Music's late-'90s CD re-release of the Columbia cast recording of Porgy And Bess.