Popular Arab American Entertainers of the 20th CenturyHollywood
By: Holly Johnson/Arab America Contributing Writer
Entertainers have a way of captivating us and bringing excitement into our lives as a means of escape from the reality of daily occurrences. Whether it is a favorite actor/actress, singer, radio personality, or model, we are fascinated by celebrity culture and are apt to follow not only their professional endeavors, but personal lives as well.
The 20th century saw a breadth of change, progression, and unbelievable moments. From life-changing inventions such as the automobile, to the creation of the Hollywood system, there was no shortage of iconic personalities. From Elvis to Michael Jackson, Albert Einstein to Tupac, the 20th century saw a variety of celebrities hailing from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. However, how much do you really hear about Arab American entertainers of the century? Compiling a list of influential musicians, actors, actresses, and media personalities, allow us to introduce you to a few of the most distinctive Arab American performers to permeate American culture.
1. Danny ThomasDanny Thomas
Born Amos Muzyad Yaqoob Kairouz in Deerfield, Michigan on January 6, 1912, Lebanese-American Kairouz began performing under his adopted pseudonym after accepting a position at a nightclub, and wishing to conceal his identity from clubgoers. Choosing Danny Thomas after the names of two of his brothers, Thomas first began appearing on radio programs in 1932, before transitioning films. His big break came in 1953 when he received the starring role on the popular television series, Make Room for Daddy (later called The Danny Thomas Show) on ABC. Following a successful eleven-year-run, Thomas later hosted a variety show titled The Danny Thomas Hour on NBC, and even dabbled in music, recording Arabic folk tales for charity. During his career, Thomas remained steadfast in his philanthropic efforts, founding St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee in 1962. With the belief that “no child should die in the dawn of life’, St. Jude’s has remained loyal to its founder’s vision and continued the role of a non-profit pediatric treatment and research facility, impacting the lives of over 9,000 children each year.
2. Jerry SeinfieldJerry Seinfeld
The son of a mother with Mizrahi Jewish descent originating from Aleppo, Syria, Seinfeld was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 29, 1954. Developing an interest in stand-up comedy after appearing in college productions, he tried out for an open-mic night at New York City’s Catch A Rising Star in 1976, leading to a brief stint in Rodney Dangerfield’s HBO special, as well as eventual appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman. Creating the Seinfeld Chronicles with Larry David in 1988, the show was renamed Seinfeld, appearing on NBC for ten years, and earning the reputation of the most watched sitcom on American television. Following his television success, Seinfeld regularly engages in comedic specials and tours, and has dabbled in podcasts and literature, authoring an adaptation of his stand-up material (Seinlanguage) and a children’s book (Halloween). He remains dedicated to philanthropic efforts.
3. Casey KasemCasey Kasem
Kemal “Amin” Casey Kasem, born April 27, 1932 in Detroit, Michigan, was the son of Lebanese Druze immigrants turned grocers, who instilled fear of ostracism in their children, insisting that the family fully assimilate into American culture, which meant not speaking Arabic. Beginning his professional broadcasting career in Flint, Michigan, Kasem’s move to California in the early 1960’s saw an increase in opportunity, leading to an eventual career in voice acting (portraying Shaggy in the original Scooby Doo series in 1969, and drummer, Groove, in The Cattanooga Cats). Hosting “dance hops” on local television, Kasem caught the eye of Dick Clark who hired him as a co-host on a daily teenage music show, Shebang, starting in 1964. Appearing on network TV series such as Hawaii Five-0 and Ironside, Kasem made his film debut in 1969, however, it was the launch of the weekly radio program American Top 40 (AT40), on July 4, 1970, that landed Kasem the lifelong role of ‘icon’. An internationally syndicated, independent song countdown radio program, Kasem lent his voice to the countdown until 2004, when Ryan Seacrest assumed the role. Currently, American Top 40 premieres new content weekly, and can be streamed online or on over 30 radio stations across America. Passing in 2014 at the age of 82, Kasem’s will forever be associated with the hopeful moniker delivered the end of each countdown, “keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars”.
4. Marlo ThomasMarlo Thomas in 1965
Born November 21, 1937, in Detroit, Michigan to the first on our list (Danny Thomas) Margaret Julia, known professionally as Marlo, has garnered considerable notoriety in her own right. Beginning her career with numerous appearances on popular television shows of the 1960s (The Donna Reed Show, Bonanza, 77 Sunset Strip), Marlo’s big break came in 1965 when she landed a role in Neil Simon’s Broadway adaptation of Barefoot in the Park. In 1966, Marlo starred in That Girl, an ABC sitcom revolving around the struggles experienced by an independently beautiful young woman attempting to launch an acting career in New York City. Airing for five years, Thomas set a precedent for women to follow, due to the highly unusual independent nature of the role she portrayed in the series, as well as being the second woman to produce her own series (following Lucille Ball). Going on to win four Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody Award for her work in television, Marlo also received a Grammy Award for her contributions in the form of a children’s album. However, her highest honor to date, remains the Presidential Freedom Award, given to her in 2014 by then American President Barack Obama. Thomas serves as the National Outreach Director for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital (founded by her father in 1962) and continues to make appearances on numerous television series and specials.
5. Paula AbdulPaula Abdul
Paula Julie Abdul, born June 19, 1962, in San Fernando, California to Syrian-Jewish parents, Abdul began taking dance lessons at an early age, focusing particularly on tap and jazz. Selected as a candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers cheerleading squad as a freshman in college, within a year, she accepted the role of head choreographer. Discovered in 1982 by the Jacksons, who saw her dance while attending a Lakers game, she was signed to do choreography for their upcoming single, “Torture”. The success of their video led to Abdul’s involvement in other “hot” music videos of the time, including Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately” and “Nasty” videos. In 1987, after saving money earned from choreographing, Abdul made a demo, resulting in a contract with newly formed Virgin Records. Enjoying success with singles such as “Rush Rush” and “The Promise of a New Day”, Abdul featured her Arab heritage by including Middle Eastern influences in her music, including “My Love Is For Real”, which hit #18 on the Billboard 200 Charts in 1995. In 2001, Abdul accepted the role as one of three main judges in the now iconic Fox music reality competition series, American Idol, and returned to music after a long hiatus. In recent years, Abdul has enjoyed a Las Vegas residency, and remains active in choreography and musical efforts.
6. Tiny TimUkulele
Born Herbert Butros Khaury, the son of a textile worker from present-day Lebanon, on April 12, 1932, in Manhattan, New York City, Khaury displayed enormous musical talent at a young age. After receiving a vintage wind-up gramophone as a present from his father, Khaury taught himself to play guitar at the age of six, followed by the violin at eleven. In the early 1950s, after landing a job as a messenger at the New York City office of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Khaury became obsessed with the entertainment world, and was determined to become a performer. Entering his first talent show in 1953, Khaury discovered his falsetto range when covering “You Are My Sunshine”. Performing at dance club amateur nights under a variety of pseudonyms, Khaury stood out from other performers by sporting wild clothing, long hair (fashioned after Rudolph Valentino), and pasty white makeup. Landing his first paying gig in 1963 at Page 3 (a gay and lesbian club in Greenwich Village) lit a spark in Khaury, and also gave him his famous stage name, Tiny Tim. Famous for playing the ukelele, he is best known for his infamous version of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”. Passing in 1996 at the age of 64, Tiny Tim remains a fixture in American culture.
7. Frank ZappaZappa
Frank Vincent Zappa, born December 21, 1940, in Baltimore, Maryland, was the son of an immigrant from Sicily with Arab descent. As the son of a father who worked as a chemist and mathematician in the defense industry, the family moved to California in 1952, which opened a world of opportunity for young Frank, who garnered a strong interest in music. Joining his first band at Mission Bay High School in San Diego as a drummer, his parents gifted him a phonograph, which sparked his love of R&B records and influential guitar players. In 1965, Zappa became the lead guitarist in the local R&B band, the Soul Giants, which later morphed into Mothers of Invention. Achieving critical success as a writer for the band’s material, as well as in audio production, Zappa disbanded the group in 1969 before striking out on solo endeavors, which led to the formation of his own record label and production line. Passing in 1993 at the age of 52, Zappa is hailed as one of the most prolific guitar players in music history, and is heralded for his unique artistry.
8. Dick DaleDick Dale
Richard Anthony Monsour, known professionally as Dick Dale, was born May 4, 1937, in Boston, Massachusetts to Lebanese-Polish parents. Learning to play the piano at age nine, he later picked up the ukulele, claiming Hank Williams as one of his biggest influences. Buying a guitar from a friend for $8 as a teenager, he learned to play both lead and rhythm styles, so that the guitar filled the place of drums. As a Lebanese American, he retained a strong interest in Arabic music, which later played a major role in his development of ‘surf rock’ music. In the mid-1950s, Dale began playing in local country western rockabilly bars, which led to his partnership with Leo Fender (an American guitar inventor), who influenced his guitar techniques. Inspired by his love for surfing and the beach music craze sweeping America, Dale’s performance at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa in late 1961 is credited with the creation of surf music (reverb-drenched electric guitars played to evoke the sound of crashing waves). Releasing nine studio albums over the course of five decades, Dale passed in 2019 at the age of 81, but is hailed as a musical pioneer who has inspired countless musicians worldwide.
Born Tiffany Renee Darwish on October 2, 1971, in Norwalk, California, she is the only child of a family of Lebanese-Syrian descent. Signing from the age of four, Tiffany debuted in 1981 with country singer, Jack Reeves, at a country and western venue, collecting $235 after passing her hat around the crowd. While singing at the famed Palomino Club, Tiffany was discovered by songwriter Hoyt Axton, and his mother, Mae, who took Tiffany to Nashville, prompting the recording of two class country covers. In 1982, Tiffany toured the country with rock pioneer, Jerry Lee Lewis and country great, George Jones, before winning second place on Star Search with Ed McMahon. In 1986, she signed her first recording contract with MCA, releasing a number one hit (and her biggest to date) in 1987; a cover of Tommy James and the Shondell’s smash ’60s hit, “I Think We’re Alone Now”. Despite changing music scenes, Tiffany has remained true to her love of music, continuing to write, record, and tour as often as her schedule permits. Venturing into acting, she has had cameo appearances in numerous popular television shows, particularly in voice over markets.
10. ImanPhoto Wikipedia: Arthur from Westchester County north of NYC, USA, at Arthur@NYCArthur.com
Born Zara Mohamed Abdulmajid (known professionally as Iman) on July 25, 1955, in Mogadishu, Somalia, Iman’s father was a diplomat, serving as a Somali ambassador to Saudi Arabia for several years throughout Iman’s childhood. At the age of four, Iman was sent to boarding school in Egypt, where she spent most of her adolescent years. Studying political science at the University of Nairobi in the mid-1970s, Iman was discovered by American photographer Peter Beard and subsequently moved to the United States to begin a successful modeling career. With her exquisite copper-toned skin, slender figure, and tall stature, Iman quickly rose to supermodel fame, becoming a favorite of Yves Saint-Laurent, who often described her as his “dream woman”. In 1994, Iman ventured into the business world, creating her own brand of cosmetics centered around difficult-to-find shades for women. In 2010, Iman Cosmetics was listed by Forbes as a $25-million-a-year business, and is among the top-selling foundation brands in Walgreens, nationwide. Following two unsuccessful unions, Iman married English musician David Bowie. A mother of two, Iman devotes much of her time to philanthropic efforts which she attributes in part to her strong Muslim faith.
11. Vic TaybackTayback
Victor ‘E’ Tayback, born January 6, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York to Syrian immigrants, Vic moved to Burbank, California during his teenage years. Pursuing a career in entertainment, Tayback attended Glendale Community College before enrolling in the Frederick A. Speare School of Radio and TV Broadcasting in the early 1950s. After pursuing his education, Tayback served in the United States Military before beginning his acting career at the age of 25. A lifetime member of the famed Actors Studio, Tayback was a familiar face on television in the 1960s and 1970s, appearing on numerous series including Bonanza, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat. However, Tayback’s is best known for his role of diner owner Mel Sharples in the television series Alice (1976 – 1985) and the film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1975). For the role, Vic was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award (1978) and won two consecutive Golden Globe Awards in 1980 and 1981. Additionally, Tayback appeared in numerous films throughout his lifetime, as well as in more than 25 stage productions, and was co-founder of the theater troupe, Company of Angels. Tayback passed at the age of 60 in 1990.
13. Michael AnsaraAnsara
Michael George Ansara, born April 15, 1922, in a small village in the Mandate for Syria and Lebanon. At the age of two, Ansara’s family immigrated to the United States, spending time in Massachusetts before settling in California. Originally dreaming of becoming a physician, Ansara decided to pursue acting after taking classes at Pasadena Playhouse to overcome his “extreme shyness”. Earning an associate of arts degree from Los Angeles City College, Ansara later served as a medic in the army during World War II. In the early 1950s, Ansara appeared on several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, later appearing on several popular television shows, such as The Lone Ranger, I Dream of Jeannie, and The Rifleman. In 1961, Ansara scored a role in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, alongside Barbara Eden and Walter Pidgeon, later appearing in the television show by the same name. Ansara went on to appear in over 100 additional films and television shows (including Star Trek), as well as several Broadway appearances. Ansara was nominated for a Saturn Award, and a Western Heritage Award for his work on Rawhide. in 1960, Ansara received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to the television industry. Married three times, Ansara’s second marriage was to I Dream of Jeannie star Barbara Eden, with whom he shared a son (who passed in 2001). Ansara passed at the age of 83 in 2013.
14. Kristy McNicholMcNichol
Born Christina Ann McNichol on September 11, 1962, in Los Angeles, California to a mother of Lebanese descent, Kristy appeared in both commercials and television series such as Starsky & Hutch and The Love Boat at a young age (thanks to family friend Desi Arnaz). In 1976, McNichol scored the role of Letitia ‘Buddy’ Lawrence in the television drama series Family, which earned her two Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actress in a dramatic series (1977 and 1979). In 1977, following an appearance in the television special The Carpenters at Christmas, where she performed several different numbers, she and her brother Jimmy ventured into the music scene, releasing an album on RCA. Beginning her film career in 1977, she appeared with Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields in 1978 in the comedy, The End. In 1980, McNichol played the lead role in hit coming-of-age film Little Darlings, alongside Cynthia Nixon, Tatum O’Neill and Matt Dillon. Later in the year, she appeared alongside Dennis Quaid and Mark Hamill The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia, for which she earned a six-figure salary (unprecedented for a teenager). In 2001, McNichol announced her retirement from acting, citing a desire to focus on her “personal happiness and well-being”. At present, McNichol lives in Los Angeles, California with longtime partner, Martie Allen, focusing largely on philanthropic efforts.
15. George NooryNoory
George Ralph Noory, born June 4, 1950, in Detroit, Michigan to a Lebanese Egyptian father and Lebanese American mother, became interested in the paranormal and ufology as a child, joining the UFO organization NICAP as a child. Attending the University of Detroit, Noory switched his major to Communications after spending two years in the pre-dental program, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1972. After serving nine years as a lieutenant in the United States Naval Reserve, he began his radio career as a newscaster with Detroit station WCAR-AM. From 1974 to 1978, Noory worked as a news producer and later executive news producer at a station in Detroit before accepting positions as director at stations in Minneapolis and St. Louis. Between the late 1970s and 1990s, Noory won three local Emmy Awards for his work in TV news. In 1996, Noory hosted a late-night radio program called Nighthawk in St. Louis, which caught the attention of executives at Premiere Radio Networks, syndicators of Coast to Coast AM (famed radio program). In 2001, Noory became a guest host before eventually assuming the permanent role of weekend host. In addition to his radio work, Noory operates an entertainment company (Norcom Entertainment, Inc.) founded in the mid-1980s, which focuses on developing and marketing video training films for law enforcement and security agencies. In 1987, Noory expanded the company to include restaurants, Café Marrakesh and Oasis Bar in Brentwood, Missouri (revolving around a fictional English soldier who opened the establishment following an exciting secret mission in Marrakesh. At present, Noory resides in Missouri, devoting time to radio and business ventures.
16. Neil SedakaSedaka in 1958
Born March 13, 1939, in Brooklyn, New York to Lebanese immigrants from Constantinople (now Instanbul), Sedaka spent his childhood in Brighton Beach, growing up along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Demonstrating extraordinary musical ability at a young age, Sedaka’s mother encouraged him to take piano lessons, which led to an eventual piano scholarship at Juilliard School of Music’s Preparatory Division for Children. At the age of 13, a neighbor heard Sedaka playing, and introduced him to her son, 16-year-old Howard Greenfield, an aspiring poet and lyricist. Together, Greenfield and Sedaka became two of the famous Brill Building’s composers. Writing countless songs together almost immediately following their introduction, they later formed their first band, called the Linc-Tones. Although the band failed to find commercial success, it did prove Sedaka’s abilities as a singer, leading to a recording contract with RCA Victor as a solo artist. Enjoying numerous hits, Sedaka has crafted an iconic legacy with songs such as “Oh Carol”, “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen”, “Breaking Up is Hard To Do” and “Bad Blood” from the 1950s to the 1970s. Sedaka is also known for his songwriting abilities, penning hits for artists such as Connie Francis and Captain and Tennille. To date, Sedaka remains active in both writing new material and sharing his musical talents with the world, and is a devoted husband, father, and grandfather.
17. Jane WiedlinWiedlin/1982
Jane Marie Genevieve Wiedlin, born May 20, 1958, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin to a Lebanese American mother, Wiedlin’s family moved to Los Angeles, California when Jane was six, when her father took a job with the United States Department of Veteran Affairs. As a child, Wiedlin was deeply inspired by music, particularly songs from The Beatles and The Monkees. As a teenager, Wiedlin was heavily influenced by the Los Angeles punk rock scene. While attending college in Los Angeles for fashion design, Wiedlin began writing songs. In 1978, along with friend Belinda Carlisle, Wiedlin formed the punk rock band, The Misfits, who later became The Go-Go’s. Signing with IRS Records in 1981, the band enjoyed almost immediate success, with singles such as “Our Lips Are Sealed”, “Vacation”, and “We Got The Beat”. Following a period of turbulence, the band briefly disbanded before reuniting for two successful tours. Making her film debut in 1986, Wiedlin has made several appearances in both TV series and films, as well as in music videos for fellow artists. A longtime animal activist, Wiedlin spends much of her time advocating for animal rights.
18. Rosalind EliasElias
Born Rosalind Elias on March 13, 1930, in Lowell, Massachusetts, Elias was the 13th and youngest child of Lebanese-American parents who immigrated from Beirut. Listening to Saturday broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera as a child, Elias’ father was initially against her pursuing her love of music, but relented after she pleaded for singing lessons. Studying at the famed New England Conservatory, she appeared with the New York Opera from 1948 to 1952, after which she left for Italy to continue her vocal studies in Italy. Making her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1954, she sang 687 performances of 54 roles there, as well as performing numerous roles abroad. In the 21st century, Elias turned to directing operas, including performances at the San Diego. Elias passed at the age of 90 in 2019, four years after the death of the love of her life, Lebanese-American attorney and law professor, Zyhayr Moghrabi. She is remembered fondly for her unique talent and dedication to her art.
29. G.E. SmithSmith/Telecaster
George Edward Smith Haddad, born January 27, 1952, in Shroudsburg, Virginia to a Lebanese-American father, began playing guitar at the age of four. By the age of 11, Smith owned an assortment of acoustic and electric guitars, earning an impressive amount of money as a professional musician at his tender age. In the early 1970s, Smith joined his first band, which led to his eventual role in successful US duo, Hall & Oates, as well as repeated European tours. Smith served as the musical director for Saturday Night Live, receiving a prestigious Grammy nomination for his participation with famed musician Buddy Guy. Once married to comedian Gilda Radner, Smith devotes his time to operating the musical initiative (created with wife, Taylor) that hosts a rotating roster of acclaimed musicians and artists from all realms for a deeper look at what drives them creatively.
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