Veteran actor, Olu Jacobs, takes a trip down memory lane with Ademola Olonilua as he shares some of his life experiences
How would you describe your early days in Kano?
I was born in Kano but my parents were from Abeokuta. Kano was the most beautiful place anyone could live when I was growing up. Religion was not a problem but an advantage and the Christian children normally joined the Muslims when they were fasting and during lent they also joined us. It was beautiful and we shared everything. We inter-married then but all of a sudden, politics started and it was misinterpreted and misrepresented. When the leaders went for a conference and they came back, they started telling stories, wrong stories. They started telling lies and began to exaggerate things and people were made to misunderstand hence the riot in 1956 in Kano. Our parents got worried and they felt it was better to run without delay, so they sent us to the west and that was my first visit to Abeokuta. I got to know the homes of my grandparents and stayed with them for a while.
Was it easy for you to adjust to your new environment when you moved to Abeokuta?
Yes. It was also beautiful. I was a young man with less supervision. I travelled by rail from Lagos to Kano. The whole topography was beautiful and we made friends on the train, we exchanged addresses and whenever we were in our friend’s vicinity, we went to visit them. When we stayed in Abeokuta, our parents were in Kano because they felt that if things got heated and they needed to run, it would be easier for them to do so.
At what point did you re-unite with your parents?
A few months after everything subsided, they came. My mother was the first person to come to Abeokuta, she checked, went back and my father came. So everything was fine. What he could not do on his own, politics made him do it because when we went to Abeokuta we were able to know our relations that could not come and visit us in the north and we got to know those that we had never met before.
You were part of the literary and debate society in your primary school. Does that mean that you had always been outspoken and social person during your formative years?
When I was asked to speak, people normally listened. I did not like shouting and where people were gathered speaking if I was meant to have an input, I would make points and not noise. If I did not know much about what was being discussed, I kept quiet and listened. My fellow pupils appreciated that and felt that I should speak for them even though I stammered. However whenever I talked, I was quite eloquent.
How did you manage your stuttering?
I would say that I was lucky. When I was young, I discovered that whenever I was angry, I should not be near anybody. You would be amazed that I could carry anything when I was angry. So if anyone annoyed me, I would just walk away and that saved me. I was able to tell myself that if they would talk about me, they should feel free because it was not affecting me in anyway. When I got a girlfriend, I realised that I could no longer think for one but for two people. You cannot afford to be selfish if you want to have a good friend. It is okay if you have a male friend whom you understand and trust but things are different with women.
Did you take part in any sport while growing up?
We all played football. I was an attacking midfielder and I also scored goals. I was left footed so very few people had my opportunity.
If you were not in the make believe world, what other career would you have considered?
When I was about seven years old, I was sent on an errand by my parents in Kano. On my way, there was this big lorry that was playing music and leaflets were being thrown everywhere, so I picked one. When I got home, I showed my parents and it was a play done by Baba Ogunde. I told my mother that I wanted to go and watch the play but she said I had not done all my chores, so I could not go. My brothers and sisters became interested in seeing the play and when they found out the condition set by our parents to release me, they decided to help with the chores. I asked my mother if she would release us if we completed our chores and she agreed. We did everything in a rush and when our parents came back, they did not believe it.
We asked her about the play and reminded her that she made a promise, she went to speak to our father and they agreed to let us go. The venue was at the Colonial Hotel in Kano along Church Road. When we got there, we met a long queue but we wriggled our way in. When we got to the entrance, we were asked for our tickets but when we presented it, we were told that there were no more seats but we could sit on the floor. Right in front of the stage, I noticed that the whole atmosphere was bubbly and people were so excited. I said to myself that I liked the atmosphere. All of a sudden, the lights went off and everybody cheered. When the lights got back on, there was music and dance, once again, everybody cheered. I was amazed and I said to myself, this is the job I am going to do.
Is it true that your father did not want you to become an actor?
He was not pleased that I wanted to become an actor. Going to watch a play is not the same thing as being an actor. My father was a prolific dancer and drummer, so he understood what it meant to be an entertainer but instead of him to accept my wish, he was against it. He was a master drummer but it was a hobby for him. He did not understand that acting was what I really wanted to do. I went to meet my mother and told her to talk to him and I even threatened her that if he didn’t concede to my request, I would run away. That was how we always threatened them.
I later got a passport form for England which he was to endorse and when I gave it to him, he tore it and said I would not go anywhere. I told my uncle who was his brother and he told me to get another passport form. It was my uncle who eventually endorsed it for me but none of us in our house told my father, if we did, he would deal with us. I got the passport and when I was applying for the visa, I went through a very rigorous interview but I felt good. This is somewhere I really wanted to go so I answered the questions with all pleasure. I answered the questions as if I had been told about it and the interviewer who was a white man had to ask me why I was giving him a ridiculous story. I simply answered that it was because I was telling the truth. He looked at me and offered me a drink. He asked the messenger to get me Fanta.
Was that the first time you took Fanta in your life?
No but we did not take beverages every day because our parents said it was too sweet. I felt that if a white man could treat me that way in my own country, how would they treat me when I got to their country. I did not finish the drink. They gave me my passport and as I was leaving, the interviewer told me to promise him that I would write him once I got to England. A promise I fulfilled even though I just wrote him once.
At what point did your father get to know that you had travelled to England for acting and how did he react?
Well, my mother told me that I should not worry, that he would give her hell and she was going to bear it but I should ensure that I kept in touch so that her mind would be at rest. You think I was the only child but I was the fifth out of eight children.
I was told that when my father eventually knew, he went berserk. When my letter arrived from England, he looked at it suspiciously and when he opened it and saw it was from me, he dropped it. Then he picked it up again, saw a packet in it and when he opened that, it was his favourite brand of tobacco, St. Bruno. A lot of people could not afford that. Before I travelled, he normally sent me to buy his tobacco which was always diluted. But what I sent to him was the real deal. It was not diluted. He then asked my mother if I was the one that sent it to him. He later sent for the person that brought the letter and asked after my well-being, he was very pleased with the tobacco that I sent to him, especially after he took a sniff.
How was the reunion when you came back to Nigeria?
By the time I got back, he was dead. He died of old age. He went to his church normally which was about three streets away and when he got back, he died. I felt terrible that I did not reunite with him because I was his favourite child.
When I learnt of his death in England, there was nothing I could do. The pain was there and I was angry with everything that denied me the access to my parents because I had to choose. Even though I chose something that he would be proud of, at the same time, it would have been nice for him to be alive and be proud of me. But it did not happen like that.
Was it easy for you to make a breakthrough in England?
In England, it was hell. You could not get an acting gig if you did not have an agent; you could not get an agent if you were not a member of equity (actors union), and you could not be a member of the actors union if you did not have an agent, so it was a vicious circle. There was no way in. I would go for auditions and they would discover that I was not a member and on the few occasions whereby I was not discovered, our boys would tell the production assistant that I was not a member. There were too many actors chasing very few jobs. I tried so hard but I did not give up and I had a support job.
What was your support job?
I was a quality control officer of Clarkson; the company was a holiday company.
How did you make a breakthrough in England then?
I was with a friend of mine who was also an actor. He told me that he had an audition atBBC and I asked him if I could come along and he agreed. I got the telephone number of my friend and his agent just in case. The audition was for 8am but I got there an hour later and that was my saving grace. After about 45 minutes of my arrival, the man in charge walked in and he gave me a sheet of paper to write my name, I was the first on the list and soon after, the director walked in. We talked for a while and he asked me to drop my telephone number and that was how I was on the final list.
You stayed in England for about 20 years and had begun to gain your strides, why did you decide to come back to Nigeria to start all over when you could have been bigger over there?
I could have never been bigger in England. There are some unwritten laws in various countries. There is a limit to what you can achieve. They could bring a white person in tomorrow and you can be sure the person could become a managing director in no time but for a black man, if he is lucky he could become a general manager and that is where he is going to rot. If you do not want to take the appointment, they would destroy all the years you have spent with them and your pension would be in trouble. You cannot go beyond a certain point. Look at the parts that I was given, you are telling an African story but you are not using Africans, it is because you don’t have respect for the culture and you want to destroy it.
How were you able to build your brand when you got back to Nigeria?
It was not difficult because my name and work preceded me. In 1977, I did an advert for Ribena. I was in England and did it there but it was shown in Nigeria. It sold so well that whenever people who came from Nigeria to England saw me, they always asked if I was the same person in the advert. They called me the Ribena doctor and the commercial kept my face and name until I appeared on the scene. I also did an advertisement for Binatone which also made me more popular. The National Theatre of Nigeria invited me to be a part of FESTAC 77 and the British National Theatre also invited me to do a play, ‘Julius Caesar.’ I got in touch with the Nigerian contingent and asked that I would like to know what they were doing and the Federal Government told me that all they wanted to do was to welcome all our brothers and sisters from all over the world. They said that whatever we had, they were going to share with them. They said they wanted to make more friends and they would try and accommodate everybody. That was how FESTAC was built.
The invite from the Federal Government was an encouragement for me to come back to Nigeria because it was something I had hoped for.
How did you meet your wife, Joke Silva?
We were having a management meeting for a play, Wole Soyinka’s Jero Metamorphosis, when a young lady walked in. Immediately she walked in, something inside me told me that she was going to be my wife and I told the people around me that I was going to marry her. That was in 1981. In 1986, we got married.
Were you not in a relationship before you met her?
I was not in a relationship. I had a disappointment that kept me away and I never wanted any serious commitment because the wound was still raw but when I met her, we talked and played a lot and it surprised people a lot. We travelled together a lot as well. When the time came, I did not hesitate and it was as if she was waiting for the question as well. I proposed to her in Tunisia because we were shooting a film, Ashanti. She came to join me there on her way to England and I asked her to marry me.
How was it building a home with a fellow actor amidst public scrutiny?
Sometimes when you have enemies outside, you become best of friends or it separates you. We were lucky that it brought us together because we were holding each other. When you hold each other, you become close because we were talking about problems, common enemies, suspected enemies, and even imagined enemies. You talk about all of them so that you must offload everything and let someone else be worrying about your problems. Once you begin to talk, you begin to like each other better. Your wife must be your best friend and if she is not your best friend, then you are in serious trouble. Don’t do things that you cannot tell her. The day you asked her to marry you is the day you should stop thinking about yourself alone. Begin to think for two. Friendship is the most important thing.
Was it only her beauty that was the basis of attraction?
No, I loved the whole package and immediately I saw her, I knew she was my wife. I said it but she ‘eyed’ me but I did not care. I looked at everybody and said that I was going to marry her but they laughed.
Was that the first time you would genuinely love someone?
It was not, I was with someone I thought we would be one but that did not happen till I met her. I was still nursing the wound until I met my wife.
How have you been coping with women and temptation?
The older you get, you learn that most of the people that come to you would be honoured to have friendship with you. But the way some people see things is that they assume that the women are throwing themselves at you. If a woman comes to visit you, some people believe that it must lead to sex or why else did she come over. It is not every woman that you see that you have. Some have been sent to you to be of help while some came to your life so you could help them. But when some men see skirts, they think sex. When we do such, we blur the inner sight that we pray for every day because we don’t have the courage to believe that it can be true and we cannot face it. For me, the experience of age has helped and I have always learnt to listen. I found it very easy to take a girl out and drop her at home. Once we leave the restaurant, we get a taxi and we drop her home.
How have you been able to resist cheating as a handsome actor?
When you stop thinking for one person in a relationship, the only person you can offend is yourself. You start to think about how such would affect your relationship.
Culled from pluse.ng