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Reuben Cannon: From a Mail Delivery Man to Hollywood’s First Black Casting Director

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You probably know who Reuben Cannon is. He’s worked in some of Hollywood’s biggest films like The Color Purple, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and What’s Love Got to Do With It. Cannon had humble beginnings in the industry and worked his way into casting and producing positions. In this article, we trace his career trajectory and highlight the films he’s worked on and acting stars whose careers he launched.

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Reuben Cannon’s Early Life

Reuben Cannon talking about his career. Video Credit: The History Makers

Reuben Cannon was born on 11 February 1946 in Chicago. He went to Dunbar High School and later studied at Southeast City College. In Chicago, Cannon honed his skills as a mail person before getting a job at Universal Studios in the same capacity.

He grounded his work on three principles:

  • To deliver the papers daily without fail. The weather isn’t an excuse.
  • Know your customers.
  • Don’t get robbed of your dreams.

His ambitions were to move out of the delivery room into other roles in Hollywood. He moved to Los Angeles, California, from Chicago at a time when the realization of the lack of diversity and inclusion began.

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Reuben Cannon’s Hollywood Career

Reuben Cannon talking about his Hollywood career. Video Credit: FoundationINTERVIEWS

When you join a new environment, getting oriented helps you to settle faster. Cannon says that even though there weren’t many mentors, partly because of the lack of proper black representation at the time, he found an advisor.

The film producer remembered his uncle’s tips which he says, never failed him in Chicago. The tip was “go to the places you want to work after payday” because some employees would be nursing their hangovers and you’ll be available for the job. This trick worked like a charm and got several jobs.

He applied it at Universal Studios. Because people got paid every day he decided to be there every day. The budding filmmaker sat outside the reception, waiting for an opening.

After a few months, Cannon split his time between Warner Brothers and Universal Studios. His perseverance eventually paid off. He got a temporary position, which then became a full-time position at the mailroom of Universal Studios. This came after two employees couldn’t return to deliver the mail and marked the beginning of his successful entertainment career.

Six months later, the former casting director turned producer landed the role of the head of personnel in the tour division. But, as the position was fairly new, Cannon remained in the mailroom.

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Becoming a Casting Director

A film set. Photo by Keagan Henman on Unsplash

The mailroom was the recruitment center for the studios and it always considered the mailmen before looking elsewhere. A casting trainee position opened in the casting department. Cannon and two colleagues applied and their applications landed on Ralph Winter’s desk, a man Cannon delivered mail.

Winters, who had interacted with him, hired him because he was the right person for it. He ignored applicants who had recommendations from influential people in Hollywood and those with connections.

Cannon was Hollywood’s first black casting trainee and casting director. However, this groundbreaking moment had its pressures. If he didn’t get it right, it would make it harder for others to get opportunities. He used his position to bring in more black people into the industry.

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Art of Casting

Reuben Cannon talking about casting Oprah Winfrey. Video Credit: FoundationINTERVIEWS

Reuben Cannon’s aim in casting was to understand the actors and actresses he worked with to create an enjoyable environment. Additionally, he used what he defined as the “Ray Charles Syndrome” to find exceptional talent during auditions.

Cannon worked as Universal’s casting director until 1978. He was also Warner Brothers’ Head of Television Casting. After 1978, he started his own casting agency, Reuben Cannon & Associates.

He worked and earned credit for launching the careers of many stars.

Some of his casting credits include:

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Shifting From Casting to Producing

A trailer for the film ‘Get on the Bus’. Video Credit: Video Detective

Reuben Cannon shifted to producing content in the 1980s. The lack of appreciation for casting directors underpinned this change. During award ceremonies, they are rarely acknowledged, so he and others “work in the shadows” as he puts it.

Additionally, casting directors never get ongoing royalties like the actors do. Once they’ve delivered their work, they get paid and they move on to other projects. Cannon says it shouldn’t be this way.

Cannon split his time between casting and learning the craft of film production. He let the film directors know that, so they’d let him join the set. His first production was Get on the Bus. Initially, he, together with Spike Lee and Reggie Bythewood funded the film. Will Smith, Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes and Robert Guillaume later joined the investment team.

This was the first Hollywood film fully funded by black men. The film traced a trip of black men from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. where they attended The Million Man March. He also produced his own films:

The American film producer worked on Tyler Perry’s shows and Tyler Perry Studios. He executively produced “House of Payne.”

Reuben Cannon’s Awards

Cannon has received acknowledgement for his work. They include:

  • 2002: Morehouse College, honorary doctorate
  • 2002: The Chrysler Group, Behind the Lens Award
  • 1986: Artios Award, Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film Casting – Drama
  • Humanitas, Film Award, for Dancing in September (nomination)

Reuben Cannon earned his place in Hollywood. From delivering mail to becoming a top casting director and producer, he’s an inspiration to everyone. He played a big role in promoting diversity and inclusion.

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