Earl Cameron, Barrier-Breaking British Actor, Is Dead at 102 (NYT Obituary)

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In the 1950s and ’60s, when Black leading men and women were virtually nonexistent on British screens, he became a star. He continued to make movies into his 90s.

Earl Cameron and Susan Shaw in the 1951 movie, “Pool of London.” Their characters had the first interracial romance in a British film.

 

Earl Cameron, a veteran film, television and theater actor who in the early 1950s became one of Britain’s first Black movie stars, died on July 3 at his home in Warwickshire, England. He was 102.

 

The cause was pneumonia, his daughter Serena Cameron said.

Mr. Cameron was still appearing in films well into his 80s and 90s, most recently in small parts in “The Queen” (2006) and “Inception” (2010). But his breakout role came more than a half-century earlier, in “Pool of London” (1951), a film noir about a group of sailors on shore leave.

Mr. Cameron had a co-starring role at a time when Black leading men and women were virtually nonexistent on British screens. Just as notable, his character developed a romance with a white woman, played by Susan Shaw. It was the first interracial relationship in British cinema.

For Mr. Cameron, whose wife was white, the role didn’t seem groundbreaking at the time. “I never saw myself as a pioneer,” he told The Guardian in 2017. “It was only later, looking back, that it occurred to me that I was.”

But fellow Black actors in Britain have long regarded Mr. Cameron as a trailblazer and a role model. “They looked up to him because he worked so much,” said Stephen Bourne, author of “Black in the British Frame,” a book about the Black experience in the British film industry, for which Mr. Cameron was interviewed. “He was a benchmark, someone they could aspire to be, because of his long life and career.”

Mr. Cameron was a familiar face in film and on television in Britain throughout the 1950s and ’60s. He co-starred in movies like “Simba” (1955), “Sapphire” (1959) and “Flame in the Streets” (1961), and was seen on TV series like “Danger Man” and “Doctor Who.”

 

He appeared with Sean Connery in the James Bond movie “Thunderball” (1965), playing Bond’s chauffeur. Mr. Cameron had been considered for a bigger role in the earlier Bond film “Dr. No,” but that role instead went to an African-American actor, John Kitzmiller. The experience encapsulated the difficulties Mr. Cameron and his fellow Black actors faced in postwar Britain.

In the British studio system of the time, as in Hollywood, Black actors were often typecast as villains or given subservient roles. Only if the script specifically called for a Black actor would they be hired. Even when they had co-starring roles, as Mr. Cameron did, their names rarely appeared on the posters.

More frustrating to Mr. Cameron was when British studios brought in African-American actors to play roles that might otherwise have gone to him or his peers. The examples are numerous: “To Sir With Love” (Sidney Poitier), “The Hill” (Ossie Davis), “The L-Shaped Room” (Brock Peters). Mr. Cameron lobbied the actors’ union to stop the practice, even as he struck up a close friendship with Mr. Poitier.

“There was a feeling among casting directors that Black British actors couldn’t act,” Mr. Bourne said in a phone interview. “It was a myth. But people like Earl were overlooked. Although their careers didn’t suffer as such because they still worked, their careers didn’t go to another level.”

Indeed, there was a near-miss quality to Mr. Cameron’s film career. Some of that was attributable to the random nature of an actor’s life. But racism certainly played a part in his not becoming a bigger star.

Mr. Cameron spoke of that with frankness, but he did not lament the leading-man career he didn’t have. He fell into acting, as he often said, and put his greatest focus elsewhere, on his family and his Baha’i faith.

“My experiences of theater, television and films have been wonderful. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” Mr. Cameron told Mr. Bourne for his book. “Some things I did well, some things I didn’t. I don’t look at myself as a great actor. Others can judge that. But acting has never been my No. 1 priority in life.”

In 2009, Mr. Cameron was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Earlston Jewitt Cameron was born on Aug. 8, 1917, in Pembroke Parish in Bermuda. He was 5 when his father, Arthur, a stonemason, died. His mother, Edith, took jobs in hotels to support her six children.

In the 1930s, Mr. Cameron joined the British Merchant Navy, sailing to New York and other ports. He arrived in London in 1939 on a ship called the Eastern Prince and remained there during the Blitz. As a Black man from the colonies, he later recalled, he had great difficulty finding a job and ended up working in hotel kitchens as a dishwasher.

One of those hotels was in the West End, London’s theater district, where he befriended jazz musicians and actors. In 1941, he talked his way into a part in the chorus of a musical based on the Ali Baba stories. He was hooked. For the next 35 years he worked consistently, spending a decade in theater before breaking into film and television.

Mr. Cameron gave up acting in 1979 and moved with his family to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, where he ran an ice cream shop called Mr. B-Kool and helped establish a Baha’i community. When his wife, Audrey, died of breast cancer in 1994, he returned to England, remarried and resumed his film career as if he’d never been away.

He gained a plum role as an African dictator in Sydney Pollack’s political thriller “The Interpreter” (2005), which is set at the United Nations in New York. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called Mr. Cameron’s performance “subtle and menacing.” For Mr. Cameron, it was a satisfying turn against type: With an almost serene presence both onscreen and off, he had more often been cast in sympathetic parts.

In 2009, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

In addition to his daughter Serena, from his first marriage, Mr. Cameron is survived by his wife, Barbara Cameron; a son from an early relationship, Quinton Astwood; four other children from his first marriage, Jane Sanders, Helen Rutstein, Philippa Cameron and Simon Cameron; 11 grandchildren; 12 great-grandchildren; and four great-great-grandchildren.

In an interview with the British Film Institute conducted onstage in 2015, when he was nearing 100, Mr. Cameron recalled his long-ago stage debut. He was characteristically humble, and he kept his acting career in perspective.

“My mouth is opening, no sound coming out,” he recalled. “My knees are trembling. Sweat pouring down. I said: Well, this is hell. But it’s better than washing dishes.”

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