Graham Young meets Earl Cameron, the first black British star to appear in a British movie. Now 93, he's fresh from working with Leonardo DiCaprio on Inception... and is eager for more
Earlier this year, James Cameron’s Avatar beat his own all-time box office champ Titanic. And namesake David Cameron became Britain’s youngest Prime Minister for almost 200 years.
But while those achievements prove that records are there to be broken, nobody can ever take away Warwickshire-based actor Earl Cameron’s claim to fame.
The youngest of six children, Earl was born on August 8, 1917 in Pembroke, Bermuda.
By the end of the 1940s, he’d become the first British black star to appear in a British film, Pool of London.
Directed by Basil Dearden, the diamond robbery story featured Earl’s black seaman character Johnny chasing a white girl called Pat (Susan Shaw).
Sixty years later, Earl, who now lives in Kenilworth, is still working.
Recent credits include The Interpreter (2005) with Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman; The Queen (2006) alongside Oscar-winning Helen Mirren and this year’s critically-acclaimed Leonardo DiCaprio hit, Inception.
A campaign to raise £400,000 towards the cost of a documentary about his life is now under way, led by Midland businessman Ken Meeson.
In a case of life imitating groundbreaking art, Earl married the first of his two white wives four years after making Pool of London.
His 40-year marriage to the late Audrey produced five of his six children, and he has now been married to his second wife Barbara for 16 years.
But Earl’s journey from Britain’s oldest foreign territory includes blood, sweat and tears – some of which are still rolling today.
“I’m very proud to have been a pioneer not only in films after the war but also by being the only black actor at that time having worthwhile parts in the theatre,” he says. During our interview, a tear rolls down Earl’s cheek from his left eye.
He’d arrived in Britain just when the Second World War was beginning in September 1939 and soon he was struggling to make ends meet.
“It was almost impossible for a black person to get a job at that time,” he says.
Earl recalls lying ill in bed with pneumonia and pleurisy in St Pancras Hospital having “thrown in the sponge” thanks to pre-penicillin medication suppressing his appetite.
As he weakened, his bed was moved to a distant corner where a nurse in her early 20s told him she’d have to send a telegram to his widowed mother, Edith, about his death.
Picturing his mother in tears, Earl found the resolve to eat some unappetising food.
“I ate all of the porridge given to me by a dumpy nurse who was not nice and told her to thank the nurse who’d been on the previous evening,” says Earl, dabbing his wet eye. “She said there was no other nurse. To this day, I don’t know who this nurse was, or if she was an angel. But she saved my life.”
Naturally shy, Earl was the youngest of three boys and three girls and was just five when their father, Arthur, died.
Believing the 20 square miles of Bermuda held few prospects, he joined a merchant navy ship and headed for Britain. Technically he was an illegal 22-year-old having arrived without a passport.
After enduring a protracted search in Liverpool for a suitable foreign vessel, he pretended to be a fireman and joined a steamship called the Rod el Farag and sailed the world before heading back to Britain.
“We dropped anchor off the Mersey, just as the first heavy bombing raid began on Liverpool.
“I was hoping by some chance to get to Bermuda again. But I ended up in London and when the train was pulling into Euston I thought ‘this feels like home’. I resigned myself to staying there during the Second World War.”
The thing about providence is that nobody is ever sure when it will strike. Working hard in London at several kitchen jobs, Earl bumped into an actor friend from a First World War revival show called Chu Chin Chow (based on Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves).
Earl joked that he ought to be cast, but Harry Crossman told him he wasn’t in Equity.
“When one actor fell ill, my big chance had come at the Palace Theatre, Cambridge Circus,” says Earl.
“Half an hour later I was singing with no voice coming out, my knees trembling and sweat pouring down my face.
“I was terrible – but I thought ‘this is better than cleaning dishes, I’m now in showbusiness’.”
As a member of ENSA – The Entertainments National Service Association – Earl entertained British troops.
He returned to Bermuda for five months after the war, only to tell his mother he had to leave again. Edith told him “If you have to go, you have to go”.
The chance to star in a show called Deep Are The Roots on a five-stop, pre-West End tour in 1947 was the making of the then 30-year-old Earl.
Watching rehearsals, the director told him: “Your diction is terrible. If you want to work in acting, work on your diction.”
“I realised I was slurring my words,” says Earl who went on to play the part in more than 60 British repertory theatres.
“I began to work with a delightful old lady called Miss Amanda Aldridge, then pushing 80.
“I’d had no formal education but she was a speech therapist and drama teacher and I worked with her for three years.”
Aldridge was the daughter of the 19th century’s greatest black-African actor Ira Aldridge.
Despite Aldridge’s best efforts, Earl found himself in “a terrible play as bad as it sounds – 13 Death St, Harlem.
“Then a girl I knew called from a film company at Ealing Studios to tell me Basil Dearden was making Pool of London.
“He told me I looked too old, so I shaved off my moustache.
“I’d told him I was 26, but when he asked again I admitted to 32 and said it was ‘poetic licence’. Actors have to tell the truth today!
“In one example of typecasting when I wasn’t going to get a part because I was ‘born in Bermuda’, I quickly said I was born in Ghana but had worked in Bermuda and I got it.
“After that I was in Lewis Gilbert’s films Wall of Death and then Emergency Call with Sid James and Jack Warner.”
In 1952-53, the emboldened Earl chanced his luck in Rome, knocking on the office door of legendary director Federico Fellini who told him: ‘I’m sorry I can’t find you a part.”
But after persuading director Duilio Coletti to take a second look at his British movie stills, Earl landed a two-month stay in Italy for a small part in a film called Torpedo Zone, starring future Miss Moneypenny actress Lois Maxwell.
While Earl’s more recent TV credits include Kavanagh QC, Casualty, Dalziel & Pascoe, Babyfather and Waking The Dead, his significant 1960s television work included Doctor Who (with William Hartnell), Prisoner and Danger Man.
He also starred with Sean Connery in Thunderball (1965) playing James Bond’s assistant, Pinder.
“Nobody wants to make a bad movie,” says Earl. “But I’ve been on films where producers just want to finish it.
“Cubby Broccoli had made lots of flops before Dr No launched James Bond, and since Connery was unknown they were expecting another flop with Dr No.”
Earl has worked with screen legends like Dirk Bogarde (Simba, 1955), John Mills (Flame in the Street, 1961) and Richard Attenborough and Jack Hawkins (Guns at Batasi, 1964).
But Sidney Poitier – the first black actor to win a best actor Oscar (for Lilies of the Field in 1964) and last year’s recipient of the United States’ highest civilian honour, The Presidential Medal of Freedom – remains a special friend.
“Sidney directed me in London in One Warm December (1973) and we still speak,” says Earl.
“He used to tell me that most big stars were either drug addicts or alcoholics so he was very sensible and stopped drinking altogether.
“Even Sidney said I should go to Hollywood but I had a family and didn’t want to.
“Hollywood didn’t like mixed marriages and my wife, Audrey, was white and Jewish.
“America didn’t appeal to me because of racism and also its materialism. Bermudans were like poor Americans, trying to copy everything.
“At the same time they were proud of their British background.”
In 1979, Earl retired from acting to run a ‘little business’ in Guadalcanal in the south Pacific’s Solomon Islands, where he lived until 1994.
Simon, his son by Audrey still lives there, while Quinton, his eldest son from an earlier relationship, has remained in Bermuda.
Audrey’s four daughters are also spread around. The eldest, Jayne, lives in Northampton, with Serena in London and Helen in Beijing. Philippa, the youngest, is in Brisbane, Australia.
Today, Earl has seven grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren, but no surviving siblings.
While he preferred dedicating himself to his family rather than seeking fame and fortune in Tinseltown, the 21st century call to star in films like The Interpreter has been too difficult to turn down.
Had he gone to Hollywood and not “retired” to the Solomon Islands, Earl agrees he could have been challenging the great Morgan Freeman for roles in movies like Shawshank Redemption (1994).
“Yes, but at that time faith was more important to me than any film,” says Earl. “I could have played Mandela, there’s no doubt about that,” adds the once shy boy, now full of confidence about his craft.
“And I’d have loved to have worked with Clint Eastwood, or when he was younger, Marlon Brando.
“The first time I tried acting to a camera I got it wrong. But I went back the next day, didn’t try to project (like you do in the theatre) and cracked it. I’ve been comfortable with the camera ever since.
“The funny thing about The Interpreter is that I’d never seen Sean Penn in any movies.
“I didn’t know who he was or what he looked like. He was just a name to me.
“On the first day with him I knew he was going to be there, but I was just this guy sitting there.
“He came over and said to me: ‘Hello, I’m Sean’ and was very friendly.
“Sean chain-smoked the whole time. At one point he just did 20 press ups with the cigarette in his mouth.
“I’d picked something up before flying out to New York and was ill with diarrhoea the whole time I was in that film.
“I was so pleased to get it all done without the director knowing.”
In October last year, Earl spent four days working with Martin Scorsese’s favourite young star Leonardo DiCaprio on Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
“To be honest with you,” says Earl leaning forward, “I couldn’t always tell what some of the actors were saying in that film.
“But DiCaprio has really worked on his diction. Every word was crystal clear.
“At the end of my time he came up to me and said: ‘Earl, it’s been a real pleasure to work with you’.
After playing an artist painting Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006), Earl was made a CBE last year.
“Being an actor is quite egotistical,” he says.
“You have to be careful not to let it grab you and I had a bit of a problem in that direction around 1959, 1960, 1961, but it helped me to understand the Baha’i Faith a lot better which cleared the debris from my mind.
“When things are going well in acting you can get carried away, but when it’s not happening a lot can take to drink or drugs.
“You have to realise your world is not real and that you can get lost in it.
“I remember seeing Bette Davis and Cary Grant at a party on Australian TV and she was still trying to play the big star even though she was an old woman when nobody cares. Grant was also not quite the suave guy and this programme reminded me of what can happen to actors in later life.”
Delighted to see the progress of the “right up there” black stars following in his wake – like the Academy Award-winning Denzel Washington and Oscar-nominee Will Smith – the ever-modest Earl pauses for barely a second before announcing what his own epitaph would be.
“After a good showbusiness career and being able to have two wonderful wives, Audrey and Barbara, I’ve reached the stage of my life at 93 where I still love the business that has given me such experiences that I am quite happy to say ‘Cheerio, goodbye...’.”
But not just yet. For Earl, there is still plenty of work to be done.