OLIVER LITONDO: FROM HOLLYWOOD WITH LOVE.//

http://www.nation.co.ke/life+style/DN2/Oliver+Litondo+From+Hollywood+with+goodies/-/957860/1961216/-/w9rdxcz/-/index.html. // / AWARD WINNING KENYAN ACTOR COMES HOME FROM HOLLYWOOD/// By Margaretta wa Gacheru. Published in Daily Nation. 21 August 2013 in DN2// Oliver Litondo is easily the best known Kenyan in Hollywood. Having won countless accolades internationally (and several here at home) for his performance in the BBC-US film The First Grader (playing the part of Kimani Ng’an’a Maruge, the octogenarian who took President Kibaki at his word when he promised of free primary education for al

One was a nomination for ‘Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture’ at the 43rd NAACP Image Awards, the other was the Best Actor’s award in the category ‘Movies for Grownups’ from the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons). “Competing for the same [AARP] award were George Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Eddie Murphy, but it was Oliver who won!” said Litondo’s wife Beldina who like her husband earned her first degree in Communications from American universities. His are from University of Iowa and Harvard University’s Loeb Center for Performing Arts, hers from University of Tennessee. Both are back in Kenya briefly before they return to the States where Oliver will be making his next film and she’ll go back to work in Washington, DC. Litondo could be just as proud of the Best Actor awards that he received at international film festivals held in Milan, Durban and Nairobi; and glad to share in the film’s winning ‘Audience Awards’ in Doha, Durban and Toronto with fellow cast members like Naomi Harris (who was recently named the latest ‘007’ Bond beauty). And after all these years, he must feel good about winning the Kalasha Lifetime Achievement Award, especially as he has worked in the Kenya media since the late Sixties when he got his first job as editor of the East African Journal. After that, he worked for everyone from Voice of Kenya radio and TV to KTN, Citizen, Nation and Standard to Deutsche Welle, Voice of America and BBC. But he certainly got special satisfaction being called to Hollywood by the NAACP and AARP after personally working in film with such stars as Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, James Earl Jones, Brian Dennehy, Isabelle Rossellini and Poppy Montgomery. Yet Litondo nearly didn’t make it to Hollywood. In fact, if he hadn’t been on his way to another film shoot, this one for Italian television, (the hit mini-series, Orzowei, il figlio della Savana) he thinks he probably would have accompanied his boss, JM Kariuki to the Nairobi Hilton Hotel on the day JM got picked by hit-men and never lived to tell the tale. Litondo had met JM in 1970, soon after his return from work and studies in the US and Sweden (where he’d staged his own play, Happy Faces at Stockholm National Theatre). They hit it off and JM invited him to become his press secretary. “We were quite close and that day I’d met him just as he was on his way to the Hilton to meet someone. If i hadn’t been on my way to Wilson Airport, I probably would have gone with him,” recalled Litondo. If he had, he said he might not be here today. “They might have taken me along with JM,” he quipped. On the other hand, if he had, JM might be here today. The other close call came five years later in 1980 when Litondo was working with Gordon Parks, Jr. (creator of the film ‘SuperFly’) on the film The Bushtrackers. “I was meant to be on the plane that exploded at Wilson Airport in which all seven cast and crew of the film perished, including Gordon,” he said, recalling that he and his wife had a tiff that morning. “She delayed my departure from my house, arguing that i need not go to the Mara that day,” Whether hers was a premonition or mere petulance on her part, we’ll never know. All he knows is that losing Parks was a major loss not only to himself (as the African American filmmaker was a personal friend as well as his director and mentor) but to Kenya as well. “Gordon had wanted to build his film empire from Kenya. He said he wanted to bring Hollywood here to this country.” The film was ultimately completed by its producer Gary Streiker. It was even launched by the then Vice President Mwai Kibaki at the Kenya Cinema, and won an award at Cannes that year. “But it never got the exposure it would have if Gordon had lived,” the actor added. Litondo went on to make several more Hollywood films; however they were mainly the kind that played on the stereotypes associated with Africa. There was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (1984), The Lion of Africa with Brian Dennehy (1988), and The Ivory Hunters (1990) with James Earl Jones and Isabelle Rossallini. During the 1990s, when the political climate was harsh and a corrupt Kenya government had placed so many restrictions and taxes on film companies that few of them wanted to come to Kenya, Litondo did a lot of media freelance work. He anchored and did news reporting for KTN as well as serving as the station’s marketing manager. And in 2001 he went to work for Royal Media (Citizen Radio and TV) as its Marketing Manager, but it was a period in Kenya when times were especially tough for anyone trying to tell the truth through the media. But even as he understood his employer was having hard times, after waiting for a year to be paid, Litondo quit and left town. He went back home to Shikunga village, not far from Kakamega town, and started a new life for himself, taking on the role of full-time farmer. The Shikunga people welcomed him home. They were proud of the sacrifices they had made in the early Sixties after he’d been accepted at University of Iowa but had no means to fly there. “This was years before anyone had heard of ‘Harambee’ but the people got together nonetheless and raised funds for my tuition,” Litondo said, adding that one of his former teachers from Kakamega High who was studying for his doctorate in the States also assisted him to make his way to Iowa. Now that he had returned home, Litondo said he might have remained in rural areas where he had come to enjoy keeping cows, chicken and pigs and growing maize, beans, fruits and vegetables. “If it hadn’t been for my old friend Lenny Juma, I might still be there,” he said. Litondo had heard that someone in Nairobi was looking for him, but not until he got a call from Juma, one of Kenya’s most respected and long-standing talent scouts, did he take the message seriously. “Lenny told me i was wanted right away to audition for a new film, and they would be sending me airfare,” recalled Litondo who ended up taking an overnight bus as he wouldn’t have gotten to Nairobi in time otherwise. Taken straight from the bus station to the film studios at Ngong Racetrack, Litondo was introduced to the British film director Justin Chatwick who handed him a script and asked him to take a few minutes to read through a specific section of it. Shortly thereafter he was doing a dialogue, speaking Maruge’s lines with an actress he didn’t know. “Chatwick made no comment on what we had done, but he did tell me to take the script home, study it and then come back the following day, which I did.” At the end of that second reading, Chatwick told him quietly that he had the part. He would be playing Maruge. Chatwick had been looking for the right person to play Maruge for weeks. He’d looked among African American actors in the States. He then went to the UK and again searched for someone who’d fit the role perfectly. He even went to South Africa but to no avail. Why it took Chatwick so long to look in Kenya for his man is a mystery. He was just fortunate to meet Lenny Juma who had worked with Litondo, who was already making films like Mlevi and Membo, way back in the late Sixties. The rest of the story is history as they say. It took them six weeks to shoot the film which is all about an old man’s struggle to learn how to read and write, set against the background of Kenya’s freedom struggle. As soon as the film was shot, Litondo went back to Shikunga to his farm, but many times he was called to come promote the film at film festivals, either in Canada, Qatar, Italy, UK, US or South Africa. The only event he didn’t make was the American premiere of the film in Washington, DC when the National Geographic took charge of its distribution. He had problems getting admission into the US. It took a phone call from the then Kenyan ambassador to the US, Elkanah Odembo, to the American consul in Nairobi to finally get permission to return to that country. “I missed the [Washington] DC premiere of the film but fortunately, i arrived in time for the [February 2012] awards ceremonies hosted by AARP and NAACP both in Hollywood. Since shooting The First Grader, Litondo hasn’t been in want of work. First he worked on TV film series called Changes in the US; then he acted in The Rogue Priest back in Kenya about the life and death of the Catholic priest, Father Kaiser. Then once he received his Best Actor award from AARP he went straight from California to Philadelphia where he was in another film entitled North Bend, scheduled to come out later this year. Following Philly, he was called to the UK by a film company that makes movies for charities. The Truth about Stanley, (in which Litondo plays Stanley) was made specifically to highlight the problem of homelessness in the UK. It was a short film, only 27 minutes, but it’s long enough for Litondo to give a deeply moving performance playing a homeless old man who befriends a 14 year old run-away. They become close and Stanley sits all day telling the boy stories about his life. The boy figures out the stories are mostly make-believes and calls out the old man for telling lies. Stanley is crushed by the boy’s challenge and doesn’t live long after that. The film’s available on YouTube, but at the launch of the film, it was the Duchess of Kent who gave the royal stamp to the event. After that, Litondo even did a voice-over for EcoNet in South Africa. Most recently, Litondo’s work on the popular CBS ‘prime time’ Sunday night TV series, Unforgettable, was aired this past weekend on American television. In the hour-long show in which Litondo is a special guest actor, he plays Dr Dimko, a West African human rights activist who has been invited to New York to receive an award from a major human right group, based in the States. The NYPD has detected a plot hatched by the Big Man back home to hire a paid assassin to kill Dimka as he’s giving his thank you speech. He says the ceremony will go on since he’s gotten death threats in the past and he’s not afraid. Fortunately, the quick-thinking NYPD cops manage to curtail the killer before she succeeds in bumping off Dimko, but the detective thriller has offered the American and international audiences yet another chance to see Oliver Litondo in action doing Kenya proud. So while our athletes are busy making their mark in Moscow and at marathons all around the world, we may also boast a bit about another Kenyan who is breaking into the global media scene. It’s been a long road for Oliver Litondo, but he clearly hasn’t reached the road’s end. In fact, it could very well be that at 65, his lifetime achievements story has many more chapters to unfold. He’s got his own screenplays to produce, films in the pipeline and a Kenyan film and theatre community that he says he’s happy to mentor if asked.

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