Actor Duane Jones was the unlikely hero in the original “Night of the Living Dead”
In 1968, Director George Romero sought out a cast for his newest horror movie called “Night of the Living Dead.” Unlike his other films, Romero wanted to include an African-American hero. The chosen actor to fight the zombies was Duane Jones. In his role as Ben, Jones became the first African-American to be cast as a non-ethnic lead in a major motion picture in America, and the first time a black actor had a starring role in a horror film. Jones’ character was the universal hero for the first time on film.
“Night of the Living Dead” was called “historically, culturally and aesthetically important” by film critics.
The entire film cost for “Night of the Living Dead” was $114,000. Once the film hit the box office and was re-released several times, it grossed $12 million domestically and $18 million internationally.
As for Jones, he became a theater professor and worked at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Jones used his talent to promote black actors in films, and ultimately helped a diverse group of students succeed.
The original “Night of the Living Dead” was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress of the United States in 1999. George Romero made five additional sequels to the film, but none were as successful as the original production that broke color barriers. In 2001, the film was ranked #93 by the American Film Institute on their list of America’s most heart-pounding movies.
Jones admitted that he had not seen any of Romero’s other films, because his historical film was “his time and his destiny”. Jones was afraid that he had been typecast in “Night of the Living Dead,” which sparked his teaching career after a few additional productions.