As competition for space innovation heats up between billionaires Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Elon Musk (SpaceX), with both working on plans designed to take tourists into space and to the moon, as well as the box office success that “Hidden Figures” (a film that tells the incredible untold story of the brilliant black women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit), I thought it was the right time to revisit the past (back to the future?) and talk about the first black astronaut in the movies.
Actually there were two, and it happened in the same year; and not surprisingly, neither was an American film. However, if anyone knows who the first black actor/actress to appear in an American film as an astronaut was, chime in; maybe it was Nichelle Nichols in the original “Star Trek” series? (premiered in 1966)? There was also Jeff Burton in the original “Planet of the Apes” (in 1968)? Were there any earlier?
But the guy on the left in the above picture is Archie Savage; anybody who knows the history of black dance in America should be familiar with him as one of its true pioneers. The Virginia-born Savage, who died in 2003, was one of the real innovators of modern black dance, and for many years performed with the Katherine Dunham Dance Company as her partner.
He went on to appear uncredited in several American films as a dancer, with his biggest role in the 1954 Gary Cooper/Burt Lancaster western, directed by Robert Aldrich, titled “Vera Cruz.” But like so many other black Americans artists who felt they were under-appreciated at the time, he eventually left the States for Europe, to find better opportunities; kind of ironic when you think about recent debates over black European actors (specifically British) coming the USA to do the same thing – find better opportunities.
Savage settled in Italy and continued making films, though he found himself still having to play roles that were no better than those he had played in the U.S. However, in 1960, he had a supporting role as an astronaut in the cheapo Italian sci-fi movie “Space Men” (“Assignment: Outer Space”) directed by Antonio Margheriti.
Now, that would have made him the first black actor ever to play an astronaut in a film if it wasn’t for the fact that, in the very same year, 1960, the Nigerian/Kenyan actor Julius Ongewe, of whom very little else is known, appeared as an astronaut as well, in the then Communist East German film “First Spaceship on Venus.”
According to one source, Ongewe wasn’t a professional actor, but rather a medical student in Leipzig, who was asked to take part in the movie. Reportedly, when asked if he would like to continue acting after that film was made, Ongewe said that he would serve his country (Kenya) better as a physician, not an actor.
Both “Assignment Outer Space” and “First Spaceship to Venus” are pretty chintzy movies with comical special effects. However this was in 1960, and they’re pretty much on par with foreign made, cheapo sci-fi films from that period.
In the case of “First Spaceship to Venus,” the original, restored, widescreen uncut German-language version of the film (under its original title, “The Silent Star”), was released on DVD a few years ago by First Run Features home video. There are DVDs of the edited, English dubbed version to be found; it was even featured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” But no matter which version you see, just take a guess what happens to the brother before the movie is over…
Lucky for you, both full films are available online (someone uploaded them to YouTube, dubbed in English), so check both films out below if you’re interested.
The storyline for “Assignment Outer Space” chronicles a mission in the 22nd century aboard a space station. The mission involves a risky effort by its crew to redirect a malfunctioning spaceship that threatens to destroy the Earth. Archie Savage plays space station pilot Al.
In the case of “First Spaceship to Venus,” when an alien artifact discovered on Earth is found to have come from Venus, an international team of astronauts embarks to investigate its origins. In the film, Julius Ongewe plays a technician named Talua. It was his only acting credit.
First, watch “Assignment Outer Space” in full:
And here’s “First Spaceship to Venus” in full: