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Oliver Samuels - Jamaica's king of comedy still large

Published:Tuesday | July 22, 2014 | 7:00 AM
Oliver Samuels

By Robert Lalah

T
here are few faces more recognisable to Jamaicans than Oliver Samuels'. He is described by experts as a legend of the local theatre scene, but really, he's much more than that. Samuels occupies a unique place as a living cultural icon whose work played a part in many people's upbringing. If you're over a certain age and grew up in Jamaica, it's likely that sitting around a television set watching Oliver was something you looked forward to and a memory you now treasure. So loved was this show and the others Samuels has done both for television and theatre that, today, whenever he's out, he can scarcely walk 50 feet without being stopped or having someone holler at him. I got to see this first-hand when he and I met up for lunch in New Kingston last week. The walk between where I met him and where we'd be eating should have taken no more than a minute. But for Samuels, public outings don't go so easily.

"Oliver!" yelled a bearded man in a plaid shirt and khaki trousers. "Mr Samuels! Good to see you!" shouted a woman with grey hair. To both greetings, Samuels responded with his near-permanent bright smile and an emphatic wave. When we sat down, I asked him how he deals with the attention.

"I think that, over time, I just got used to it," he said, still smiling. "It really doesn't bother me at all 'cause I love people and meeting them."

But surely, there must be times when he'd prefer to be left alone, I suggested. "No man," he said. "I learned a long time ago that when you have the privilege to be in a position where people love you and want to reach out to you, then you should treasure that."

Miss Lou's eye-opener

Samuels didn't always have such magnanimous feelings about the public's sometimes-intrusive behaviour. In fact, it was another cultural icon, none other than the great Louise Bennett, who would open his eyes to an alternative way of looking at things.

"This was a long time ago and we were out together. It was an inner-city community somewhere and I remember, when the people saw her, they just rushed up to her and started touching and grabbing at her. They even took the scarf from around her neck and all sorts of things. Man, I got so angry! Mi vex! When we left and we were alone I was telling her how vexed I was about how the people behaved. I told her I didn't understand how she didn't run the people and why she didn't look upset about it. Miss Lou just looked and me and laughed. She said, 'Ay, mi son. Sometime yuh haffi teck kin teeth kibba heart bun.' I will never forget that. She said, 'Oliver, after a while you belong to the people'."

Samuels said it was an immediate eye-opener for him. "It is a special thing when people appreciate your work to the point where they think that you belong to them. It is not something to turn your nose up at," he said.

There's an ease with which Samuels responds to the constant requests for photos and impromptu conversations. He never appears uncomfortable. "That is not hard," he said. "I go to bed as Oliver Samuels and wake up as Oliver Samuels. Sometimes when people try to pretend to be one thing in public and something else in private, then it can get confusing. But for me, I am just myself," he said.

He jokes about being at a funeral service once and getting pinched constantly by an odd woman behind him who expected him to react as the character he played on television. Then there are the times he's been slapped on the back of the head or pushed by people who appeared not to realise that he was in fact an actor who was only playing a role on a show. "They were seeing me as Oliver, the television character. It was very strange," he said.

He was once booked to be a celebrity guest on a United States cruise ship full of members of the Jamaican diaspora. "I spent the whole day taking pictures. Morning till night. One time, when I got tired I had to run to my room and lock up myself in there. Two twos, I hear this loud knocking on the door. Boom! Boom! Boom! 'Oy! Come out!' I had was to go back out before the people dem kill me," he chuckled.

Drawn to theatre

I asked Samuels what drew him to theatre in the first place. "A few things, really," he said. "When I was growing up in St Mary, we lived on a plantation and I remember that, for fun, the adults used to gather around and tell duppy stories or act out skits. As a little boy, I was fascinated by the performances. Also, I remember one time when my mother went to market, I did some chores and, when she came back, she said that, since I did that, I could go to the movies in Highgate. It was my brother and I who went. I remember sitting in the movie and there was a scene in the show where it was raining. Man, the thing sounded so real to me. I thought it was raining outside. So when I was ready to leave, I start prepare to walk in mud. And mi nuh like mud! When I walk outside, the place dry like chip. I couldn't believe it. That memory stands out to me because it showed me the power of performance."

Samuels would eventually move to Kingston to get a job. His mother was ill at the time and he needed to make some money to help take care of her. He did a short stint as a proofreader at The Gleaner, and at other places, but it was an audition at The Little Theatre that would change his life. "A friend brought a clipping from The Gleaner to me that said auditions were being held there. I didn't even know how to find the place, so I had to get someone to come with me." Samuels' audition was successful and he was admitted into the theatre movement. "And the rest is history," he said.

Looking back at his life, Samuels is happy. "I have done what I love to do. Theatre gives me real joy and I can say that I really have enjoyed my life so far," he said. But theatre is only one aspect of Samuels' life. Those who know him best, know that there's a whole other side of the actor. Samuels' modesty won't allow him to talk about it much, but his philanthropy and simple kindness to strangers in need is remarkable. Friends say he would give strangers the shirt off his back if they needed it. He's adopted dozens of children over the years and raised them as his own. He's paid school fees, bought books, washed and ironed school uniforms, packed and shipped barrels, fed, hugged and supported countless children who are not his own.

I know about hunger

He's put them through school and many of them are now successful professionals working in Jamaica and abroad. I asked him about it. "Robert, sometimes I don't like to talk about it, because all I want to do is to give these children the chance to be what they were meant to be. I don't talk about it much because sometimes it can feel like you are belittling people by pointing to how you helped them. But what I can say is that I grew up poor. I know what it feels like to be hungry, and is not a nice feeling. When we were in the country and hungry, at least we could go river and catch fish. When you in the city and hungry, what you supposed to do?" he said. Samuels removed his glasses and showed me a scar next to his left eye. "I got this scar when I was a boy cooking in an Ovaltine tin. The thing explode and burn my face. It is always here to remind me where I come from.

"I wish I could change the world and help everybody out of poverty. I can't do that, but one thing I know is that I will forever help the people who need it. Once I am alive, I will do whatever I can to give people a chance. Whenever somebody who I help, one of my children, comes to me and says thanks, all I tell them is, let it rub off. By that I mean, I want them to now use this chance that they have in life to help other people who need it. That is all I want. That is what really matters to me," he said.

I asked Samuels what he wants his legacy to be. "When I dead and gone, all I want people to remember me as is a man who was kind to people, who was loyal to his friends, and who lived life with a smile. In the end, that is all that matters," he said.

robert.lalah@gleanerjm.com