The world has lost an icon. An outstanding actor has passed away leaving a proud legacy difficult to emulate. Nigerian actor, Justus Esiri not only made an impact in the African film industry, he was simply the best of African entertainment. A natural actor who made his movie roles come to life and mesmerized audiences across the world. His ingenuity made it easy for other actors to play their roles effortlessly, as he became the guide with a natural sense of making films look like real life events.
As the entertainment industry mourns the huge void that his death has left, the legacy that has been left behind by this remarkable actor will long be the yardstick for many to follow. Below is an interview the wonderful actor gave and was published on Nigeria Trends. May his soul rest in pace, and may his family take comfort from the huge impact this man has made across many living rooms around the word!
He has been a regular face through the stage, national television and of course Home video since the early 70s that he needs no real introduction. However, very few know the story of his life because he is not the kind who will readily give in to an interview that will talk about such. Some journalists dread his disciplinary disposition because he has no room for so called dullards who are not up on their feet. He gives audience to Home Video People and this is it. An explosive bang. Enjoy the story of his life: “I am an urhobo man, come from an African aristocratic family. My forebears were educated. My great grand-father could speak English at least.
I went to Urohobo College and my principal was a very principled man who attended the world famous Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone and later to Dublin in Ireland. He later became a parliamentarian of the western region. Late Senator F.G. Ejaife. May his soul rest in peace. He was a great man, a man who allowed his students to believe in logic. We had a fantastic debating and dramatic society, we had a beautiful library which told you about every kind of things including costumes.
If you wanted costume of many years back, there were books in the library to equip you. In 1959-1961, my school came tops in the Festival of Arts and I was part of that troupe. In form four, I had already taken charge of the society. When the brief came that we would participate in the Festival, the principal called me and handed them over to me, so I was the one who put everything down. I had to make the script available to others and rehearse them. I had to go to the library to read up about the costumes required. We were well brought up in that school to be able to use our head. Maybe that was the talent that I wasted studying engineering. But God brought me back here.
I went to Germany to study engineering so I lived in the West Berlin but I had several friends in the East of Berlin because there were fantastic theatres in the east, so I often went to see them. For instance, I watched Poggy and Bess in the East of Berlin where there was a lot done for culture and the arts. The issue of the wall was not there then, just the arts. It didn’t stop a foreigner who was a student from going to the east from the west. I did go there frequently. They had great actors and actresses and beautiful theatres. I enjoyed my stay. There was nothing like racism then. The Nazi regime had gone and the government was trying to make everything available for the people. I still visit Germany now and then. I still speak German.
In those days when I returned to Nigeria, I translated and read news in German in Voice of Nigeria, I presented my own programmes in VON in German, when the late Zeal Onyia was there. We were all in Voice of Nigeria, German Service. I also remember Bayo Martins, who was drummer in those days in Germany, a fantastic one at that. May his soul rest in peace. He was a fantastic guy and there are not many artistes like that these days. The Voice of Nigeria (VON) was a part time programme for me. When they heard I spoke German, they called me to translate the news and when you did that, you read it yourself. From there, I went to present a music programme for VON. It was fun. Really fun.
Return from Europe
In Berlin, I was the only Nigerian on stage about 1968/69 when I started. I can’t remember any other Nigerian on stage and TV in the whole of Germany at that time. There were some French speaking Africans. I returned to Nigeria because I was performing on stage one evening and I saw some men in Nigeriaagbada as part of the audience. Later, news came that these people wanted to see me. They told me about FESTAC and that the Federal Government needed Nigerian artistes in diaspora to return for the festival. I was impressed. I returned for FESTAC and since then, I have been here. We have tried to do our own thing. With the attendant publicity of FESTAC, we wanted to do our own productions and travel with it as travelling theatre the way Ogunde and his likes did it.
We thought we might create another opportunity to educate and enlighten our people. But one soon realised it could not be done because of the logistic problem of transportation. Theatres were not available at that time and not available up till now. I was working with young people and any time I wanted to travel, I had to take special permission from their parents and it had to be at weekends. It wasn’t very easy for me, so I decided to do some other things, yet not forgetting the call. If you have a talent, you must make use of that talent. The bible says with thy talent shall thou feed. We have tried to use the talent to do one or two things. I am very impressed so far. We could still do more. But we haven’t used it effectively for our people. We are still there and find every other day a challenge.
Before I featured in that programme, I never liked Village Headmaster because of the pidgin English. It was already in Lagos. One day I was at home when someone came to tell me that I should come for an audition for Village Headmaster because according to him, they had tried a lot of people and decided I should come. At the National Theatre on that day, everyone was seated and they said they were going on location by the weekend. I had never seen the script before then, so I took it home and read it through. The location was in Badagry. On that day, everyone including Late Elsie Olusola, Kabiyesi Funsho Adeolu, Joe Layode, Ibidun Allison, Kabiyesi, Wole Amele, everybody sat down watching because I had not worked with them before. To my surprise, by the time I finished that sequence, they were all clapping.
When I am on set, I am a very deep person because of the belief that words have life and must be given life. People appreciated the way I handled Village Headmaster. Then Supple Blues which was a different thing entirely. Then Things Fall Apart. There was a time I was three times weekly on network television. That is why I feel very bitter that of all the programmes I had done, those who took part in Samaja that came from the North of Nigeria, those who took part in Masquerade and those who took part in other Yoruba programmes were given National honours while I have featured in several plays and have not been recommended. I am not judging them, I just feel bitter. It would come when it would. One thing I am happy is that people appreciate what I have done. One day a car was chasing me around and almost bumped into me when the woman in the car peered out of the window to tell me she was sorry but she had told her driver to chase me so she could tell me something and that is that you ‘make acting look like real life’.
My day was made. There are so many things one could do with this talent for the benefit of our country. But when you write a proposal, they sit on them or give them to their cronies to do or they ask you why you should make money when you already have fame. What is wrong in making money when you have fame? Actors are not properly paid. Maybe some of them are now getting a better pay. I believe that some of those who are coming after us will get better pay. But the actors and actresses should be clapped for. Out of nothing we have made so much. There are no cinema houses where producers or executive producers should go and show their films. You finish making a film and put it into direct VCDs and some lazy persons dub these things and pirate them.
Older the wine…
In the last AMAA 2006, I remember saying that there is a saying that the older the wine, the better it tastes. I don’t know why I said it but it just came. I also remember when I was on stage in Berlin, Germany and there was a misunderstanding between the man who was directing the stage play and the actor, a well known actor and this actor had gone against the direction of the director. He bluntly refused to do the director’s bidding. This director had said to him, you are not 40 years yet and the actor said yes. He said until you are 40, you won’t know what you are doing on stage if you have a director which means the older you get, the more you appreciate certain things that you do. Every movie that I take part in is a challenge. One appreciates these things and I just feel that you must keep yourself up to date.
You must try. I have not gotten to the point I want to get to. Some people think that every one who wants to act must be handsome or beautiful. That is their own cup of tea. It is how you act and how you express yourself. If you can lift your audience from their seats into the box, you have got them. It is an art and you must learn this art. You must understand this art. You must just be there. I believe that some actors are born but they must work hard to be made.
Movies all the way
I don’t like talking about my movies and you want to move me to that area. I hardly watch my movies because I am very critical and if you work with the numerous directors we have worked with, you would come to understand that some of them are not very deep. In most cases, they just want to shoot people. I love Forever, The tyrant, Corridors of power, etc. There are so many of them. I have not watched all of them. But I still need to be challenged.
Engineering as academic accident
I actually spent time in studying engineering. When I consider the course work and the practicals, I wonder. As a young man, one had ideas. One was fascinated by the things you see. When I got to Europe, and got to Germany and studied engineering. I did not practice this course for one day. That tells me that when God has a way for you, He opens it without you knowing it. I had gone to what one would call the bureau of employment where I had friends and the woman says there is a production company who were in need a black man who was good with the Dutch language. So she recommended me and kept the letter for me. I got a date to meet with the producer. And you won’t believe it, my audition was like a joke. It lasted for a week.
Someone would come and meet with me, chat with me over a cup of tea and leave. Another one would come and leave. These people turned out to be my production cast and crew. After the production was through, the leader of the entire thing said ‘Yustus’ (Justus) you are good. I like to recommend you to the school of performing arts. By the time I completed the studies, I was part of the travelling theatre travelling all over Europe. There is hardly a city in Germany where I did not perform. There is hardly a theatre in the entire Germany I had not performed. I was in Austria, Switzerland. That is what God wants me to do. That may be, is why I am still being sustained when some of my mates are out of the line.
I love suits and I have several of them and I wear them as well. The fact is that you have not caught me wearing them my dear. I also love to dress as an Urhobo man. I have these types of caps that I wear when the occasion arises. The other day you saw me with my walking stick. I do not have that all the time. I dress very simple.
It is hot out there and you need air. When you see me wearing suits, you’d love me. I used to buy designer suits. When I was in Germany, I used to model for Selbach. I was one of the first people who wore denim in different patches of colours. My denim trousers used to match my briefs. Even my shoes were made directly for me. I just put my foot down and they measure it and make them for me. For perfumes, I love it and use them in different names but I won’t advertise for them by mentioning the names of my perfumes. I mentioned Selbach because they are not here.
I won’t tie wrapper on Monday or Tuesday. I will do that when I am going for an event that has to do with tradition. I will dress according to situation. I wear agbada if the occasion calls for that. But the bottom line is, I love to dress simple.
God has been very nice to me. I have very disciplined children. Six of them. Five are already graduated. My last baby is going to the university. Three of my children are married and have given me grandchildren. One is a banker and a finance man. He is a chartered accountant, I have a daughter who is a accountant. I also have one who is an economist. Apart from these one of my sons is a dental surgeon while the other is a geologist. It is my son who is a dental surgeon that is into hip hop music and he is doing well at it and I wish him the very best. SID is the name of Justus Esiri’s son whom studied Dental Surgery before becoming a superstar rapper.
I didn’t think was very necessary. Not that I didn’t have girl friends then. Marriage is when you get to that stage you get married. I knew where I was coming back to and some of the problems peculiar to us. If I had returned to Europe after my FESTAC experience, maybe I could have picked up a white wife, I don’t know. I didn’t want to run away from the situation. I decided to stay. I am married to Omiete and very happy with my wife, a wonderful woman from Kalabari land, Rivers state. At times I go out for weeks, ooh she has been wonderful. She has been a pillar of my home. I am just happy. You won’t believe it, she is a textile designer and does all my local wears. Whatever I wear that is not foreign is made by her. It is what I call Ormi’s Designs. She makes them for me. Selects them herself and sews them.
I play golf, If you were not here now, I would have been at the golf course. I play anywhere but my club is Ikeja. When you play golf, you have no time for any other thing. It is the golf course and then your house. But it is very interesting to play golf really.
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