Our Earl: ‘Keep going and keep trying’

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  • An Evening with Earl Cameron: Earl Cameron (Photo by Akil Simmons)

    An Evening with Earl Cameron: Earl Cameron (Photo by Akil Simmons)

  • An Evening with Earl Cameron: Earl Cameron (Photo by Akil Simmons) April 11,2012

    An Evening with Earl Cameron: Earl Cameron (Photo by Akil Simmons) April 11,2012

It’s often said chivalry is dead, but veteran theatre and screen actor Earl Cameron proves otherwise.

Called “a Bermuda gentleman of the highest order” by Culture Minister Patrice Minors, Mr Cameron still emanates a rare sense of old-world charm and charisma.

The 94-year-old, arguably the Island’s most accomplished actor, returned to his birthplace this week to speak about his early life, career and faith, as part of the Department of Community and Cultural Affair’s Historical Heartbeats Lecture Series.

He told a packed auditorium at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute that little of his childhood here could have prepared him for the life he now leads.

“I didn’t have any preparation for [the stage], but determination is a wonderful thing,” he said.

Growing up in a poor, single-parent home in Bermuda, however, did instil in him a sense of wonder about the world.

“I always had a very strong desire to travel, even in my earliest days. So as a small boy from the North Shore side of Bermuda I used to hang out there sometimes and I would often see the ships going by.

“I said to myself ‘One day, I am going to be on one of those ships’ ... That was my feeling you know.”

His dream came to fruition. He joined the Merchant Navy as a young man, sailing to and from New York and South America.

He took his first theatre role in one of London’s prestigious West End productions in 1942, but said his start in acting was “more or less an accident”.

He’d found himself stranded in England during the Second World War with little to no formal qualifications.

According to Mr Cameron, he “suffered terribly” during that time — through poverty and sickness — when it was almost impossible for a black person to get a job.

He worked a series of menial jobs until one day a friend handed him a ticket to the comedy production of ‘Chu Chin Chow’.

“I saw the show and went backstage and had a chat. They had six black guys in the play.”

He asked if he could join the show.

“I was more or less kidding, but I thought it would be way better than washing dishes,” he said.

Three weeks later he ran into the same man from the production who offered him the chance to fill in for a missing performer.

“Believe it or not that night I was on stage,” Mr Cameron said.

The budding actor didn’t know the words to any of the songs but something about being on stage struck a chord with him.

“Perspiration was pouring down my face and I said to myself, ‘Oh God. This is terrible, but it’s better than washing dishes’.”

The rest is history, as they say.

Mr Cameron devoted the next eight years to working in the theatre and then got his first screen role in ‘Pool of London’, a film set in post-war London involving racial prejudice, romance and a diamond heist in 1951.

He went on to perform major roles in the movie ‘Sapphire’ in 1959 and then ‘The Message’ in 1976.

His long-spanning career has also included roles in the James Bond movie ‘Thunderball’, ‘The Interpreter’ starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn and a cameo in ‘The Queen’ starring Helen Mirren.

Mr Cameron is known as one of the first black actors to push past colour barriers in the United Kingdom.

He said roles today for people of colour “have changed a fair amount”, but added that it was “not enough”.

“Today in England especially they have some great actors about and a few of them have made their way to Hollywood.

“I would say things have changed somewhat. In my time everything was typecasted. If the writer didn’t say a ‘coloured’ or black character you didn’t get the part.

“But now directors will say [if a part] suits some actor they have worked with — black or white.”

A practising Baha’i, Mr Cameron took a break from his acting career and spent 15 years living on the Solomon Islands because of his faith.

He said: “I didn’t intend to get back into this business at all, but then my wife [Audrey] came back to England because my youngest daughter wanted to go to a drama course.

“She came with her back to England and about 18 months after being back she discovered she had breast cancer.

“I came back and five months after [my] being in the UK she passed away. It’s very sad, but it’s one of those things; it’s life.”

This was one of a few sombre moments during the two-hour event, but Mr Cameron largely managed to keep the mood upbeat with his sense of humour and humility.

He described former cast member Sean Penn as “friendly” and “uninhibited” and that Nicole Kidman and Helen Mirren worked very hard and studied their parts well.

Asked what advice he would give to aspiring young actors here, Mr Cameron said: “All I say is to persevere; don’t give up. Keep going and keep trying.

“There is a God up there ... So prayer is a powerful thing, so pray for what you want.”

Mr Cameron was accompanied by family, including wife Barbara and granddaughter Siria Rutstein, who sang two songs in honour of the occasion.

Ms Rutstein is currently following in her grandfather’s foot steps and studies musical theatre at the Boston Conservatory.

The actor’s life story is in the process of being made into a documentary by Marcus Thompson. The project, supported by the Bermuda National Gallery, is understood to be only partially complete and in need of donations to continue filming.

To donate, or for more information, call 295-9428.

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Published Apr 13, 2012 at 8:47 am (Updated Apr 13, 2012 at 8:46 am)

Our Earl: ‘Keep going and keep trying’

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