Many actors must dream of landing a leading role in a major Hollywood thriller with an A-list cast. But to be offered such a part at the age of 87 would likely be a stretch of the imagination for anyone. It happened, though to Earl Cameron. The Bermudan-born, British actor, who was a Baha’i, passed away last year at the age of 102.
Yet, for Cameron, even getting the chance to act alongside Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn in The Interpreter (2005) did not match the thrill that he got from giving a speech in the film to the United Nations General Assembly—even though he was speaking the words of an unsavoury despot and the ambassadors were a multi-racial array of 2,000 film extras. Just to be standing at the lectern before the world’s nations reinforced Cameron’s strong belief in justice and global cooperation. “Seeing the names of all the countries on the desks in front of me, I got a real sense of the importance of the UN,” Cameron would often say afterwards. “The world is desperate for peace and there’s no other way it can go but towards greater cooperation at a global level.”
For an actor so passionate about the unity of humanity—who himself led the way in breaking down the colour bar in film and television—it was a strange twist of fate that the issue of racial equality was leading the news agenda around the world on 3 July 2020, the day he died. The extensive coverage of his passing did not fail to pick up on the fact; there was a huge outpouring of affection in the press and on social media, including from fans of James Bond (Earl appeared alongside Sean Connery in Thunderball), and the cult TV series Dr Who and The Prisoner, through which Cameron became a familiar face in the 1960s.
Earl Cameron’s journey to acting success began inauspiciously in 1939 when he arrived in London at the age of 22. “It was quite impossible for a black person to get any kind of job,” he told the Baha’i World News Service [BWNS] on his 100th birthday in 2017. “The attitude was that they should go back to their own homeland. Some of them were veterans of the First World War, and even they couldn’t get a job.” It took 12 years, including walk-on roles in theatre productions, before Cameron’s big break in Pool of London (1951), the first British film with a leading role for a black actor, and an interracial romance.
Cameron, who never thought of himself as a pioneer for black actors, often had to wait months between films or TV appearances. And occasionally he felt compelled to turn down a job, if he felt the black character was not depicted with sufficient dignity. In a statement announcing his passing, Cameron’s children said: “As an artist and as an actor he refused to take roles that demeaned or stereotyped the character of people of colour. He was truly a man who stood by his moral principles and was inspirational.”
Cameron’s early experience of racism, including a spell spent travelling to India with the merchant navy, had launched him on a spiritual search. “On this ship there were fights almost every day. I must say they were a very quarrelsome bunch of seamen for the most part! And then I saw Kolkata with all of its hungry people on the streets, and wondered, ‘Why? Why is the world like this?’” When it was suggested that he try to develop his acting career in Hollywood, Cameron thought it no place to take his family. His wife, Audrey was white and Jewish.His spiritual search was satisfied when he encountered the Baha’i Faith in 1963. He had met up with a friend from Bermuda—visiting London for the Baha’i World Congress at the Royal Albert Hall—who invited him to a public meeting. “I went very reluctantly, to tell the truth,” he recalled, “but my wife said, ‘He is from Bermuda and so why don’t you just be polite and go.’” To his surprise, Cameron found himself attracted by the great diversity of people.
“I had seen and experienced all the mess that the world is in, the prejudice and sickness of humanity. I just felt there had to be some solution to it all. So when I eventually read the Baha’i writings, with their teachings of oneness, it didn’t take me long to say: ‘This is it, this is what I have been searching for all my life.’”
At the point where Cameron’s career could easily have gone the same route as Sidney Poitier’s, he left acting and moved with his family to the Solomon Islands to help develop the Baha’i community there. He bought a local ice cream business which quickly became a focus of social life in the capital Honiara. Unaware that a film star was in their midst, Solomon Islanders only knew him as Mr. BCool, the ice cream man.
Returning to the UK after 15 years when Audrey became ill, Cameron’s acting career resumed. After The Interpreter, he had a touching cameo role in The Queen, painting Helen Mirren’s portrait at the beginning of the film. He was made a Commander of the British Empire [CBE] in the 2009 New Year Honours list, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Warwick in 2013. He was also lauded in Bermuda where the main theatre in Hamilton was renamed “The Earl Cameron Theatre” in 2012.
But none of his remarkable achievements meant much to him in comparison to his embracing of the Baha’i Faith.
“There’s hardly a minute of my life when I’m not thanking God for my existence on this earth and having found this wonderful Faith,” he said on his 100th birthday. “To me if I had lived a million times again and not had the Baha’i Faith it would all be for nothing.”
BWNS, Pioneering actor, now 100, reflects on life, faith, and change, Retrieved from: news.bahai.org/story/1184/