Reel Pioneer | Earl Cameron

by Brian Baxter | The Guardian
previously published on July 5, 2020

The long career of the actor Earl Cameron, who has died aged 102, mirrored changes in both British cinema and society. His debut, playing a West Indian merchant seaman, was in the ostensibly modest film-noir Pool of London (1951). In retrospect, it can be seen as a milestone in its depiction of a relationship between a black worker and a young white woman – the first time the subject had been sensitively handled in a British film.

Cameron went on “against the odds”, he once remarked, to act in some 40 features, plus many TV series, including Danger Man and The Prisoner, dramas including Waking the Dead and TV movies, notably Edward Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith (1965) and The Great Kandinsky (1995). His big-screen roles ranged from James Bond’s secret service minder Pinder in Thunderball (1965) to the dictatorial president in Sydney Pollack’s thriller The Interpreter (2005).

Cameron was born in Pembroke, Bermuda, the youngest of six children of Arthur and Edith, and began acting in his late teens, subsequently joining the merchant navy and becoming a member of the forces’ entertainment organization Ensa – as a song-and-dance man – during the second world war.

He settled in Britain and worked in repertory before his auspicious debut, produced and directed by the pioneering team of Michael Relph and Basil Dearden, at Ealing Studios, in London. The blend of a thriller about smuggling and an inter-racial romance was in direct line with the documentary movement of the 1930s and the more realistic feature films of the war years.

He moved quickly into the role of a fairground boxer in an even grittier and more atmospheric thriller, There Is Another Sun (also known as Wall of Death, 1951), and was again a boxer in the B-movie Emergency Call (AKA The Hundred Hour Hunt, 1952), as a man reluctant to help a sick white child, despite the fact that he is one of only three people found with a matching blood group.

Inevitably, there were not enough home-grown roles to keep him busy and he was often on location, in reality, or via studio mock-ups. After The Heart of the Matter (1953), he was again in Africa for larger parts in two films about the Mau Mau, Simba (1955), starring Dirk Bogarde, and a year later in the energetic Safari, shot on location. In the family adventure Odongo (1956), he and the rest of the cast were secondary to the wildlife and scenery.

He took the pivotal role in the thriller The Heart Within (1957), set in London playing a West Indian fugitive dependent on the kindness of strangers, including a perky teenager played by David Hemmings. He was a lawyer in the over-earnest The Mark of the Hawk (1957), with Sidney Poitier, and a doctor whose sister is murdered on Hampstead Heath in Sapphire (1959). The plot of the latter hinges on the fact that the sister has been passing as a white person and the killing is racially motivated. Made by Relph and Dearden and written by Janet Green, it was another important – if timid by today’s standards – examination of British society.

In Flame in the Streets (1961), Cameron played a shop steward victimized at work and defended by a trade union leader (John Mills) who turns out to be less liberal when his daughter wants to marry a Jamaican teacher.

After this modest work and the controversial Term of Trial (1962), starring Laurence Olivier, Cameron was back on location in two Tarzan films, but his “journey” was more worthwhile for Guns at Batasi (1964), set in a newly independent African state, where an insurrection is less than well handled by resident British forces. Cameron made the most of a strong role as Captain Abraham, who is called upon to take charge of the chaotic situation.

He moved to Nassau for Thunderball, playing a local agent called in to assist an especially crusty Bond (Sean Connery). Such parts in big-budget productions were rare and he was on the buses as a conductor in the music hall-inspired The Sandwich Man (1966) and then a verger in the Cliff Richard vehicle Two a Penny (1967). There was more fun to be had as an army sergeant in Battle Beneath the Earth (1967) and as the father in Two Gentlemen Sharing (1969), about an aristocratic Brit and a Jamaican lawyer sharing a flat to general bemusement.

Cameron was in the US for the Jon Voight film The Revolutionary (1970) and seemingly in Havana for the undervalued Cuba (1979), set at the time of Castro’s revolution. His role as an army colonel reunited him with Connery. Between these movies, he worked on a film about the prophet Muhammad, The Message (1976). He was again a doctor in Déjà Vu (1997) and elevated to the role of cardinal in Revelation (2001), before regularly appearing in the TV series Babyfather.

Cameron was a redeeming aspect of the implausible The Interpreter, as President Zuwanie – seemingly to be assassinated at the UN building in New York. His authoritative presence lent dignity to a fragile storyline and showed that none of the magnetism apparent in his debut 54 years previously had diminished. He had a small but juicy role in The Queen (2006), as the official portrait painter; and another small role in the high profile Inception (2010).

He was appointed CBE in 2009.

Cameron’s first wife, Audrey (nee Godowski), whom he married in 1954, died in 1994. He is survived by his second wife, Barbara (nee Bower), the five children, Simon, Jane, Serena, Helen, and Phillipa, of his first marriage, and Quinton, his eldest son, from an earlier relationship, with Marjorie Astwood; and eight grandchildren, Louisa, Kalan, Siria, Sophie, Isabella, Fiorella, Karmeta and Kelly, and two great-grandchildren, Kasra and Zander.

• Earl Cameron, actor, born 8 August 1917; died 3 July 2020

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