At the outset of the 1970s, a teenaged DeWayne Jessie had a promising start to an acting career, just at the point when gifted young black performers were getting more work than ever before. But after eight years of steady screen work and small but enlarging supporting roles, he was sidetracked by a part so unexpectedly big in a movie so unexpectedly successful, that in the 25 years since, he's only appeared in five more movies, but never lacked for work as a performer on-stage, growing out of that movie. In 1978, Jessie was cast in National Lampoon's Animal House in the role of Otis Day, leader of Otis Day & the Knights, who are seen performing "Shout" and "Shama Lama Ding Dong" in two key scenes -- ever since then, like Clayton Moore donning the mask of the Lone Ranger in 1949 and never getting too far from it, DeWayne Jessie has worked regularly as the leader of Otis Day & the Knights.
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Ironically, Jessie's most prominent role before National Lampoon's Animal House was probably in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, in which he played Rainbow, a ball player in the Negro Leagues who is mute. Born in 1953, Jessie made his screen debut at age 17 as a high-school student who is unable to read in the topical drama Halls of Anger (1970), directed by Paul Bogart and starring Jeff Bridges. He had an uncredited role in The New Centurions (1972) and bounced between television and films over the next few years, guest starring in episodes of series such as Love American Style, Kojak, Starsky and Hutch, and Laverne & Shirley, interspersed with small feature roles in Darktown Strutters, Car Wash, and Fun With Dick and Jane. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings earned him good reviews for a portrayal as poignant as it was inspiring, and earned Jessie an Image Award from the NAACP as Best Supporting Actor.
In 1978, he appeared in two movies, one the abominable Thank God It's Friday and the other National Lampoon's Animal House (which earned over 70 million dollars on its first-run release), playing Otis Day, a part that he almost turned down. Within weeks of the movie's opening, he was seeing positive repercussions from his performance, despite the fact that one of his two featured songs, "Shama Lama Ding Dong," was dubbed using the voice of singer Lloyd Williams -- the actor's main contribution in his all-important second scene was his physical presence and the announcement, "It feels so good to be back here at the Dexter Lake Club. We'd like to do a tune entitled "Shama Lama Ding Dong." So hit it." But he looked so good doing it, and fronting the band (which included a young, pre-stardom Robert Cray), that he started getting offers to perform as Otis Day.
It took a little time before Jessie actually took the Otis Day & the Knights show on the road, but by 1982, he was a top attraction at frat dances, college-town clubs, and other venues catering to students who'd seen or knew of the movie -- and there were tens of millions of them. Twenty-one years later (a testament to the movie's lingering appeal and constant renewal of its audience, as well as Jessie's skills as a performer), he was still at it, even appearing at B.B. King's in New York. He's been working on-stage as Otis Day longer than he worked onscreen as DeWayne Jessie -- his last movie role was in D.C. Cab in 1983, 13 years into his career. But he made it into the documentary accompanying the 2003 DVD re-release of Animal House, playing (surprise) Otis Day. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi