Today, actors often play up their multicultural heritage. Looking racially ambiguous likely even adds to the appeal of stars such as Jessica Alba, Keanu Reeves or Wentworth Miller. But in old Hollywood, studios not only anglicized the names of actors but expected them to downplay their ethnic origins. This led movie stars who weren’t solely of European extraction to pass for white in film, their personal lives or both. Can you name the acting legends known for passing for white in Hollywood? You might be surprised to learn which actors estranged themselves from their roots to achieve fame and fortune in the movies.
With her fair skin, green eyes and flowing hair, actress Fredi Washington possessed all the traits needed to pass for white. And she did—kind of. In 1934’s “Imitation of Life,” Washington plays a woman who denies her black mother to cross the color line. In reality, Washington refused to deny her heritage, advocating for blacks in entertainment. Married for a time to a black trombonist--Lawrence Brown--the only time Washington reportedly passed for white is to buy snacks from the establishments that refused to serve her husband and his band mates due to their skin color. Given that she wore dark makeup in some films to avoid being mistaken for a white woman, you could also say that Washington passed for black.
Merle Oberon earned an Oscar nod for her acting in 1935’s “The Dark Angel” and more recognition for playing Cathy in 1939’s “Wuthering Heights.” But off screen, Oberon feared that her secrets would be exposed. She wasn’t solely white nor was she born in Tasmania like actor Errol Flynn, as she told people. Actually, she was born in India to an Indian mother and an Anglo father. Rather than disown her mother, though, Oberon passed her off as a servant. When the actress visited Tasmania later in life, the press hounded her for details about her upbringing, forcing her to admit that she wasn't born there. Still, Oberon did not confess to being Indian. The 2002 documentary, "The Trouble with Merle" examines Oberon's deceit about her origins.
John Gavin was born John Anthony Golenor Pablos in Los Angeles. He has Irish and Mexican ancestry and speaks Spanish fluently. But unlike Anthony Quinn, who was also half-Mexican, Gavin consistently played white characters during his years in Hollywood. The leading man is known for his roles in the 1960 films “Psycho” and “Spartacus,” as well as for 1959’s “Imitation of Life,” a remake of the 1934 version with Fredi Washington. While that film chronicles the plight of a young mixed-race woman, Gavin’s mixed-race background is never referenced in that film or in others. In 1981, however, Gavin’s heritage resulted in former actor and President Ronald Reagan appointing him the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Gavin served as ambassador until 1986.