Nollywood Means Nothing, It Is A Copycat Of Hollywood & Bollywood – Veteran Actor Lari Williams
Excerpts of veteran Nollywood actor Lari Williams recent interview with Tony Okuyeme on Nollywood and his relationship with his late friend, Fela.
About three years ago, there was a story that you were going blind and homeless…
Yes, there was an article with headline that ‘I was going blind and homeless’. But I must confess I didn’t like that. In fact, some people said I should sue the media organization, but I said there was no point… I never said I was blind or going blind. Then, I just had an operation on my left eye in Calabar, where I was a lecturer at the University of Calabar, which is part of my service to the industry. And I got back, and my landlord at Satellite Town, Lagos where I was staying, told me that he was retiring from work and that he wanted to sell the house.
He told me to pay N10million, which I didn’t have. So I left the place, and moved in to my office at the Artiste Village at the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos.
And a reporter had come to talk about Dan Maraya Jos, the musician, who had just passed on then. After the interview, I said to the reporter that people were talking about Dan Maraya Jos, but what did they do for him when he was alive? Then I said, for example, I have just come back from Calabar, only to meet problem of accommodation. That was it, only to read later that Lari Williams ‘goes blind and homeless’. This was about three years ago, but I am here, getting on stage and performing. I have just had my 50th anniversary on stage, where I was celebrated as a musician, poet, actor, director, and a writer.
You started as a journalist. At what stage did acting in?
When I left CMS Grammar School, Lagos, the first job I did was as a cub reporter with West African Pilot owned by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. I was covering sport, and later court reports. During that period, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was made the Governor General of Nigeria, and he had to go on his maiden tour. And the newspaper editor chose me and a senior reporter to represent the newspaper. I was the youngest journalist that went with him on that tour.
And when I came back and did the story everybody was impressed with what I did. So it was easy to convince my parents that I wanted to study journalism. I had connection with a man called Ralph Butler in London School of Journalism. So I was able to go to London School of Journalism. And during that period I was sent to Morley College in London, to read English. Also, during this period they gave us passages to learn, then come and recite them. And each time I did mine, they would say that I would make a good actor.
This got into my head somehow. Fortunately, they had acting class in that same school, so I went and joined the acting class. It was in the evening. That’s how I started. I did about a year, and acting with this group, and I was told that was a proper acting school in North London, called Mountview Theatre School. I eventually went and got into Mountview Theatre School. That was where I would say, I started acting class proper. So, by 1966/67, I graduated after two years. I had a Diploma in Theatre Arts (Acting). Then I thought I was actor, and I wanted to look for jobs in acting proper.
But some people said no, that before I can become a professional actor I have to go to a professional school. I didn’t know about this. So, I spent another year preparing for auditions to go to Stratford, where I was told was the best training ground. So, I went for the audition and succeeded. In late 1976, I was invited to come along with London contingent to represent the London contingent at FESTAC 77. I came in as a musical poet and also as an actor. So, that was it; I did that in FESTAC, I read my poem. The poem I did was a protest poem against South African government (Apatheid).
You were in Village Headmaster…
Yes, I think it was when they saw me on stage in Isiburu Ekpere, that I was invited to join the cast of Village Headmaster. The first role I played was the Man from Soweto. Eventually, I became the school inspector. Immediately after that, I was invited to take part in another soap titled ‘For Better For Worse’. From there I was also invited to get a role in ‘Mirror in the Sun’. I was Ladipo in ‘Mirror In The Sun’.
Have you been embarrassed at any point while playing any of these roles?
The role that I played and was embarrassed sort of was in Better For Worse, where a friend of mine had told me that he couldn’t sleep with his wife, and that I should do it; and I did it. But I was so drunk I went to a drinking joint (a bar) and told my colleagues that somebody’s wife was ‘our wife’. That became a very popular saying, ‘our wife’ in the play. But I was embarrassed…
I was at a bus stop at Satellite Town, Lagos, when one woman looked at me, sighed and moved away, and said ‘some people can be so bad in this world…” And from the way she was talking and looking at me, I had to ask her if there was a problem, and she said that “yes, people like you (me) cannot be trusted… A friend trusted you, and you got drunk and you were telling the whole world about what happened… if you cannot control yourself when you drink, why don’t stay away from it…” I was embarrassed and had to explain to her that it was just a play, that I was only acting a role. But she retorted that that was not an excuse, and that if they told me to do that kind of a play I should have declined… And how could I have been calling somebody’s wife ‘our wife’. She was so serious that she was not bothered whether it was a play or not.
It was very embarrassing…
You were also in Danladi Bako’s Spacs, a detective drama series… Yes. That was after Mirror in the Sun. In Spacs, I was the Police Commissioner. I would say that on the whole I must have done about 17 soaps, including Adio Family, Young Ones, Jagua Nana’s Daughter.
Let us look at the transition to Nollywood…
The choice of the name Nollywood for our movie industry didn’t go down well with me, I must tell you.
I don’t mind us going forward but why Nollywood? So I questioned it that was why somebody thought that I hate Nollywood as an industry. No. I don’t hate Nollywood, it is just that the name Nollywood is just something I refused to accept; I didn’t like it.
Because it means nothing, it’s just copycat kind of a thing, from Hollywood and Bollywood. So, I said, if wood it must be, why don’t we call it ‘Camwood’? It makes sense. Camwood is the first makeup thing that our dancers used to use, also for skin care, and so on. So, I suggested that it should be ‘Camwood’ because it makes sense. Camwood is used for many things; it is now even used for hair cream…
Are you married?
How many children do you have?
As we say in Yoruba, we don’t count children for their parents.
Looking back now, do you have any regrets?
Well, I don’t know whether I feel regret; but I have satisfaction and fulfillment as an actor, poet, and writer. I would say, as a Christian, in all things give thanks to God. I thank God that I have been able to give that service, and I wouldn’t say that I am happy about my bank account. But all the same, ‘I keep on keeping on’.
How close were you with Fela?
We were good friend. People thought that Fela was a loud person, but Fela was an introvert. People don’t believe this. We had our little quiet talks. I stayed with him briefly at the place before he moved to the final place. Later, I left his place.
I left because I could not cope with the noise in place. It wasn’t like we quarreled. We remained good friends after that. Importantly, we gave three of our children the same name: Femi, Sola, and Seun. But we never sat together to decided to give our children the same name. The thing about Fela is that people don’t know that was not just a musician; they just think Fela became popular just because of his music. Fela was a fantastic musicologist. He wove his music intricately. That was why he was very popular. He studied music too. Fela was one of the best horn instrument arrangers.