The late Esiri
•Jonathan: He was epitome of creativity
• Actors call for prayers against frequent deaths
Nseobong Okon-Ekong, Chinyere Okoye in Lagos and Muhammad Bello in Abuja
Before the news of his tragic death filtered out yesterday, Nollywood icon, Justus Esiri, had hit the headlines last year for a somewhat gloomy reason. He and Segun Arinze had been robbed while attending the Olympics in London. They were touring London with 'The King Must Dance Naked' and other stage plays.
Unknown to him, it would be his last major production. Esiri who began his acting career on stage craved a return to live theatre in his last days. He was said to have been fed up with Nollywood scripts which he did not find challenging anymore. For him, there was nothing more to exploit in Nollywood.
Esiri, a septuagenarian, died on Tuesday night.
But his creativity was well appreciated as President Goodluck Jonathan yesterday joined other Nigerians in mourning the veteran Nollywood actor, whom he described as an epitome of commitment, excellence and creativity.
Jonathan reiterated his belief that Nollywood actors have carved a positive image for Nigeria in the eyes of the international community, with the late Esiri, a Member of the Order of the Niger (MON), having contributed in no small measure to the creation and sustenance of that image.
A statement by the president’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, said the Nigerian movie industry and the country would miss the actor.
The president extended his sincere commiserations to the Esiri family, the government and people of Delta State and all fans of the late actor.
But many are worried that the Nollywood community is recording too many deaths in recent times given the recent death of Sam Loco, Enebeli Elebuwa (Andrew), Goldie, etc.
The President, Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN), Emeka Rising Ibe, told THISDAY that the situation was worrisome.
“First Goldie passes on and we are still dealing with the pain and grieving and then another Nollywood veteran is dead. This is yet another sad news that has befallen the industry this month. I pray God will give us the heart to bear this loss," he said.
He added that, “this is sad but if only we all can come together and pray against death in the industry, it will make an impact.”
Esiri is remembered for having harped on a return to live performance, a profession which made him to abandon a promising career in engineering. He attended the Maximillan University, Munich, Germany, 1964 and Prof. Weners Institute of Engineering, West Berlin, 1967.
However, in a twist of fate, while working as a casual staff at a theatre company in Germany, the acting bug bit him. The pull was irresistible. Being one to follow logical steps, he enrolled at the Ahrens School of Performing Arts in1968.
For so many years, he was the lone black face in a challenging environment that did not think much of people of colour. Looking back, his resilience to continue with drama in Germany speaks volume about the toughness of a man who was determined to live out his dream.
Recalling how he returned from Germany, Esiri narrated: “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. Though I returned to Nigeria because I was performing on stage one evening and I saw some men in Nigerian agbada 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 the Diaspora to return for the festival. I was impressed. I returned for FESTAC and since then, I have been in the industry.”
In the late 70s, Nollywood was hardly in anyone’s imagination, but television and stage presented themselves to Esiri and he entered a life-long embrace with them. His versatility could be measured with the fact that he was one of the few theatre artistes that was at home on stage, television and film.
He took up paid employment with the Voice of Nigeria, German Service as a translator. His working hours was flexible and the arrangement suited him as it did not interfere with his acting.
His best known role in television was the Village Headmaster in the then popular television series of the same name. Incidentally, Chief Segun Olusola, the creator of Village Headmaster, passed on last year. Esiri continued to be active on stage until Nollywood was born.
While some treated the emerging Nigerian film industry with some cynicism, Esiri was one of eminent trained thespians who supported Nollywood with his integrity and credibility. The long array of his performances bears evidence to his versatile talent. The checklist includes: Village Headmaster, Supple Blues and Things Fall Apart. He featured in many Nollywood movies, including I Love Forever, The Prize, Six Demons, Wasted Years, Forever, The investigation, Corridors of Power, Last Knight, The Tyrant and he is reputed to have featured in more “TV Network drama programmes than any Nigerian actor.
Until the end, he always had faith in Nigeria and did everything within his power to project it in a positive manner.
Unlike some who were never rewarded for their love for the motherland, Nigeria rewarded Esiri when he was decorated with the MON.
Apart from the Nigerian national honour, Esiri’s talent harvested other laurels at the THEMA Awards, NTA Honours Awards and AMAA Awards, amongst many others.
However, it must be said that Esiri was already used to certain comfort as his background would reveal. Born on November 20, 1942 in Oria-Abraka, Delta State, Esiri attended Urhobo College, Effurun in the then Bendel State, now Delta State. He was an avid golf player. One of his younger brothers, Mr. Albert McCarthy Esiri, is a well-known billionaire industrialist who owns one of the biggest, active polo clubs in Nigeria. Albert Esiri is the CEO of Ashbert Limited; Ashbert Beverages Limited, founder of Abraka Turf and Country Club; Executive Chairman of Ashbert Oil and Gas Limited and other business ventures.
One of his sons, Dr. Onoriode Esiri, is a dentist turned pop artiste, who is better known as Dr. Sid. Previously signed to the defunct Mo’Hits Records, Dr. Sid’s playful, fun song, ‘Pop Champagne’ shot him into limelight.