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1st Earl of the silver screen

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Pioneering performer: Earl Cameron, the first black actor to star in a British feature film, was appointed a CBE in the 2009 Queen’s Honours (File photograph)

Bermudian acting legend Earl Cameron has died, aged 102.Mr Cameron was one of the first black performers to break into mainstream British entertainment.He was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2009 for his accomplishments, which included being the first black actor to star in a British feature film.David Burt, the Premier, led tributes last night to a son of the soil who achieved international fame.Mr Burt said: “At a time when the whole world is examining the history of people of colour, Earl Cameron’s life and legacy makes us pause and remember how he broke barriers and refused to be confined to what his humble beginnings may have dictated as his path.”Mr Cameron’s career was launched in 1951 by the film Pool of London, a classic thriller — but never shown in his home country.Bermuda snubbed it in part because it was the first British movie to show an interracial relationship.Mr Cameron told The Royal Gazette in 2018: “To be honest, it didn’t strike me as breaking ground on the racial issue.“Coming from Bermuda in 1939, which was a very racist island, the degree of racism in England didn’t surprise me. I had grown up with it.”Mr Cameron, born in 1917 and the youngest of six children, grew up on Princess Street in North Hamilton, not far from the old Colonial Opera House.His father, a stonemason, died in 1922, and his mother took a series of hotel jobs to support the family.Mr Cameron held a series of jobs, selling newspapers and working on the ocean liners that brought visitors to the island from New York, as a young man.But his life changed in 1939 after he joined the British Merchant Navy.He arrived in London on the eve of the Second World War and ended up stranded.Mr Cameron scraped a living with a series of low-paid jobs in wartime London until his acting career started almost by accident.Mr Cameron said in the 2018 interview: “When I arrived in London, I had no qualifications for anything.“It was a period when it was almost impossible for a black person to get any kind of job.”But his fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better when he went to see a friend who was in the cast of Chu Chin Chow, a West End show, when he was working as a dishwasher at a Corner House restaurant in the city’s Strand. He asked his friend if he could have a part in the production after he noticed several black actors in the cast.Mr Cameron said: “He said, ‘no way’. The show was cast but strangely enough three weeks later he came by late one afternoon and said my big chance had come.“He said a guy on the show hadn’t shown up. It was the third time he had missed a matinee, so the director said to get someone else.”Mr Cameron made his debut in the chorus that night and never looked back.But he admitted: “My knees were trembling before I went on, the sweat was pouring out, and I had never been on a stage before in my life. But it still beat washing dishes.” He returned to Bermuda after the war.However, just five months later he was back on a ship, heading to New York and then to London, where he won a role as an understudy in the play Deep are the Roots.His accent, which sounded American to British ears, also helped him secure a speaking role as Joseph, the chauffeur in the American play The Petrified Forest. After his breakthrough in Pool of London, he landed roles in films such as Simba with Dirk Bogarde and Safari with Victor Mature, and also appeared in Tarzan movies.Mr Cameron also appeared in cult TV shows such as Danger Man, Doctor Who and The Prisoner in the 1960s.He said: “The Prisoner must have been one of my smallest roles and it’s the one everyone remembers.”Mr Cameron went on to star with actors such as Sir Sean Connery in the fourth James Bond movie Thunderball, Sir Richard Attenborough, and Sir Sidney Poitier — a good friend — in the 1973 film A Warm December.He was a devoted member of the Bahá’í faith, which he joined in 1963.Mr Cameron was known for his relaxed manner and laid-back approach to fame.He maintained he was “a back-of-town boy — very much so — that’s my background and I’m very happy and proud of it”.His religious beliefs were one of the reasons why Mr Cameron dropped the idea of a move to the bright lights of Hollywood.He said he worried about a transfer to the movie capital of the world after he heard stories of widespread alcohol and drug use.His faith also took him to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific with his family to assist the Bahá’í community there.The Camerons left the Solomons in 1994, just before the death of his first wife, Audrey, from breast cancer.The father of five, originally from Pembroke, lived in Warwickshire with Barbara, his second wife.Mr Cameron was interviewed in 2012 for An Evening with Earl Cameron by Kim Dismont Robinson, now director of the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, in her role as folklife officer.She later said: “Everyone who meets Earl comes away with the same impression. He is a quintessential Bermudian gentleman in the way that I remember my own grandfather and others of his era.“He is almost courtly with his self-effacing politeness, his charm and is philosophical about where he has come from and the path he has travelled during the course of his long life.”Mr Cameron’s most recent screen appearances included a cameo role in the 2006 film The Queen, with Dame Helen Mirren; the 2010 film Inception, and a role as “grandad” in the short film Up on the Roof in 2013.He was inducted into Britain’s Screen Nation Hall of Fame in 2016. The veteran actor was honoured in his homeland in 2012 when the Hamilton City Hall theatre was named after him.Mr Cameron also won the Prospero Award from the Bermuda International Film Festival in 2007 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Warwick University in 2010.Mr Burt said Mr Cameron was “a pioneer from Princess Street”.He added: “This iconic actor was a proud son of Bermuda whose constant, dignified presence added to stage and screen over decades.“All Bermuda joins with me in celebrating his long and remarkable life. On behalf of the Government and people of Bermuda, I express my sincerest condolences to his wife, children and family.”Community affairs minister Lovitta Foggo said: “I was extremely saddened to learn of the passing of Earl Cameron, a Bermudian film legend with a career that spanned decades and broke barriers.“As the first black actor to star in a British film, he became a pioneer in his field and was often recognised as Sidney Poitier’s British-based counterpart, opening doors for other black actors in the field.”Ms Foggo said that even in his advanced age Mr Cameron “remained the gracious, charismatic and gentlemanly icon that made him a star”.The Department of Community and Cultural Affairs hosted Mr Cameron for an evening of conversation in 2012, and to celebrate his 100th birthday in 2017. The Bermuda Arts Council established the Earl Cameron Award in his honour last year, intended for a Bermudian professional who has demonstrated exceptional passion and talent in the field of theatre, cinematography, film or video production.Ms Foggo added: “The Ministry of Community Affairs and Sports honours and remembers Mr Cameron’s creative legacy and contributions.“We extend our sincerest condolences to his wife Barbara Cameron as well as the rest of Mr Cameron’s family, loved ones and friends. May he rest in peace.”

Earl Cameron (Photograph by Owain Johnston-Barnes)
Earl Cameron (File photograph)
Earl Cameron in April 2012 (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
David Burt, the Premier, enjoys face time with Earl Cameron and his wife, Barbara (Photograph supplied)