Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson, May 26, 1886 October 23, 1950) was a Lithuanian-born American actor, singer, and comedian.
Born to a Jewish family in Srednike, Lithuania, he and his family moved to the United States in 1894, where they settled in Washington, D.C. Childhood events; namely, the death of his mother, his father's career as a rabbi and cantor, and he and his brothers' love of singing and theater, would go on to shape his future.
He got his start in a circus, and later performed in a vaudeville act with his brother and a third man, Joe Palmer. They toured the country for a while, before Jolson struck out on his own, soon settling in San Francisco. It was here that he began performing in blackface, which would more or less end up defining his career. His rise to stardom was kickstarted in 1911, when he was selected to appear in the musical comedy La Belle Paree. From that point on, he became a regular on Broadway.
As the 1920s rolled along, he moved on to Hollywood and sound films, eventually starring in what would be his biggest hit, The Jazz Singer. Beyond that, however, he failed to find much mainstream success. He would continue to act through World War II, entertaining soldiers, before dying suddenly on October 23, 1950 from a heart attack.
Jolson has a somewhat complicated relationship and reputation with the African-American community. On the one hand, he (intentionally or not) promoted and perpetuated black stereotypes via his blackface performances. On the other hand, he fought discrimination on Broadway, and promoted the first production of a Broadway play with an all-black cast, at a time when equal rights for all races was opposed or ridiculed. He and his films may have also given a number of black performers the break they needed to establish themselves in the music industry.
There is no denying that Jolson's work has been influential; during his lifetime, and many years afterward, his acts and persona have often been subject to parody.