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Black Spectrum honors pioneering theater actor

Award-winning actor and director Arthur French was honored with a lifetime achievement award last week by the Coalition of Theatres of Color at The Black Spectrum Theatre in Jamaica.

French, who was one of the founding actors of the Negro Ensemble Co., has appeared in 10 Broadway shows as well as the silver screen and television and directed the acclaimed Harlem revival of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

The Harlem-born thespian, who now lives in Jamaica and would not reveal his age — “I admit to being a senior citizen,” he said — said he was surprised to be given the award.

“I thought it was crazy. I sort of don’t understand it exactly, but it’s nice and I’m happy about it,” he said. “I never thought of getting an award for what I do.”

French said The Black Spectrum Theatre “has been part of my family for 40 years,” directing and acting in plays for the southeast Queens nonprofit.

Carl Clay, founding director of the theater, noted French’s 50-year career includes an Obie Award for “Two Trains Running” and “A Soldier’s Story” and roles alongside screen legends Jason Robards and James Earl Jones.

Movie credits for French, a Jamaica resident of 15 years, include Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn,” “Malcolm X,” “Kinsey” and “Three Days of the Condor.”

“We’re talking about an extremely talented performer and icon who we want to acknowledge because if we don’t acknowledge our own, who will?” Clay said.

The Coalition of Theatres of Color was the brainchild of black screen legends and couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, who helped form the group in the late 1990s to give black actors a chance to hone their craft.

Woody King, Jr., one of French’s contemporaries, said he was a hard worker who “would do five plays at a time.”

“Everybody loves his work,” King said. “He should be the actor of Queens, like we have the poet laureate of Queens.”

French was presented the award by his good friend Ted Lange, best known as “Isaac the Bartender” on “Love Boat.”

Lange joked that French was undeserving of the award because he still has more left in him.

“I don’t think Arthur French deserves a lifetime achievement award. This guy will be in a high-spending, over-produced production and appear for no money in a play in a garage in Brooklyn,” he said. “Listen, I know Arthur French and he’s fooling you guys. His lifetime achievement ain’t even close to being over. You’ll have to come up with another award in 10 years because he’s going to do some s--- that’ll blow your mind.”

Lange said French nurtured talent and directed promising actors during his career.

“He’s committed to the artisans of this town,” he said. “Everything good I learned about show business I learned from Arthur French.”

French said the award meant more to him than any other accolade he received.

“I think there’s no greater honor you can get than to be honored by your neighbors,” he said.

French said he recently saw the Hollywood blockbuster “Thor” and noticed there were 200 credits at the end of the film for positions that did not include actors.

“Those are jobs we can have,” he said, referring to southeast Queens. “These are things we can learn in school.”

French ended by joking he is looking forward to another honor by the Coalition of Theatres of Color.

“Hopefully, I will return in 10 years and you’ll have another award for me then,” he said.

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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