5 Celebrities Who Passed for White in Hollywood's Golden Age

Carol Channing makes this list

Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn
Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn. Henry Guttmann / Getty Images

Actors today often play up their multicultural heritage. Their racially ambiguous looks may even add to the appeal of stars such as Jessica Alba, Keanu Reeves or Wentworth Miller. But in Hollywood's Golden Age, studios not only anglicized the names of actors but also expected them to downplay their ethnic origins. This led movie stars who weren’t solely of European extraction ​passing for white in film, their personal lives, or both. You might be surprised to learn which actors estranged themselves from their roots to achieve fame and fortune in the movies.

Fredi Washington in "Imitation of Life"
Scene from the 1934 film "Imitation of Life," starring Fredi Washington and Louise Beavers. Bettmann / Getty Images

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 real life, Washington refused to deny her heritage, advocating for blacks in entertainment. Married for a time to 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 because of their skin color. Given that she wore dark makeup in some films to avoid being mistaken for a white woman, one could also argue that Washington passed for black.  

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Merle Oberon (1911-1979)

Actress Merle Oberon
Actress Merle Oberon, 1933. Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Merle Oberon earned an Oscar nod for her acting in 1935’s “The Dark Angel” and earned additional 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.

Instead, she was born in India to an Indian mother and an Anglo father. Rather than disown her mother, Oberon passed her parent 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.

Clint Eastwood And Carol Channing In 'The First Traveling Saleslady'
Clint Eastwood And Carol Channing In 'The First Traveling Saleslady'. Archive Photos / Getty Images

When Broadway sensation Carol Channing was 16, her mother let her in on a secret. Channing’s paternal grandmother was black. With this knowledge in tow, Channing went on to win accolades for her performances in “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.”

Known for being a gay rights advocate, Channing didn’t reveal her African American ancestry to the world until 2002, when she released her memoir, Just Lucky I Guess, at the age of 81. Today Channing says she never felt ashamed of her black roots. Rather, she believed her black ancestry made her a good performer because of the common stereotype about blacks being naturals at singing and dancing.

“I thought I had the greatest genes in showbiz,” Channing remembered.

Actor John Gavin
John Gavin from the film 'Imitation Of Life', 1959. (Photo by Universal International Pictures/Getty Images)

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 and played characters of various ethnic backgrounds, Gavin consistently played white characters during his tenure 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 who passes for white, Gavin’s mixed-race background is never referenced in that film or in others, despite his dark hair and swarthy skin.

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.

Premiere Of Pantelion Films' 'How To Be A Latin Lover' - Arrivals
Raquel Welch in 2017. FilmMagic / Getty Images

Born Jo Raquel Tejada to a Bolivian father and an Anglo mother, Welch grew up in a house where her Latin ancestry was ignored.

“This made me feel like there was something wrong with being from Bolivia,” states Welch in her 2010 memoir Beyond the Cleavage.

When she arrived in Hollywood, film execs reportedly urged her to lighten her skin and hair.

“She had to become white because that is what Hollywood knew how to sell,” explained Charles Ramírez Berg, author of Latino Images in Film.

Welch later suffered from an identity crisis. “I had no Latin friends,” she said.

So, in 2005, she visited Bolivia to learn more about her heritage. In her golden years, Welch has played Latino characters in various film and TV roles, including Gregory Nava's series "American Family."