Ken Gampu, 74, one of the first black South Africans to be featured in Hollywood films, died Tuesday at his home in Vosloorus, South Africa. He had been ill, but the cause of death was not disclosed.
Gampu worked alongside such actors as Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster. He had worked as a schoolteacher, law clerk and interpreter (he spoke seven native dialects in addition to English and Afrikaans) before he was discovered by Athol Fugard, the South African playwright. Fugard cast him in “No Good Friday” in 1958.
Seven years later, Gampu earned international notice for his role in “Dingaka,” a movie musical produced by Joe Levine. In 1966, Campu appeared in Cornel Wilde’s African adventure movie “The Naked Prey,” earning glowing notices for his portrayal of a warrior leader.
He later appeared in “The Scalp Hunters” with Lancaster, “King Solomon’s Mines” with Brit Ekland and “Tigers Don’t Cry” with Anthony Quinn. Several of the films he appeared in have become cult favorites, including “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” “Zulu Dawn,” “Wild Geese” and “American Ninja 4.”
Gampu often spoke of the humiliations he suffered as a black actor in South Africa despite his Hollywood success. In 1975, for example, he was cast as Lennie in a South African stage production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” but was allowed to play the role only after the government gave him permission to share a stage with whites.
“For the first time, the black man was on an equal footing with the white man,” he told an interviewer. “And you know, honey, the heavens didn’t fall.”