SOUTH AFRICAN CLASSIC FILM STAR KEN GAMPU by Deborah Painter

Ken Gampu had one of those demeanors that naturally projected athleticism and confidence.  In fact, before he began acting in 1958 he was a police officer and a physical training instructor.  Born on August 28, 1929 in Germiston, Ken was the son of Morrison Gampu, a Bantu interpreter for the government.  Ken had his first acting break when selected by playwright Athol Fugard to work in his 1958 theatrical production,No Good Friday.  Ken Gampu could speak seven South African dialects in addition to Afrikaans and English.

Dingaka starred Ken Gampu as Ntuka Makwena and Stanley Baker as attorney Tom Davis, who defends him in court following a vengeance killing.CREDITS: Jamie Uys Film Productions

Gampu had minor roles in two South African films, Tremor,and The Hellions, both released in 1961, and was the star of his third film, the Jamie Uys Films production Dingaka, directed by Jamie Uys in 1965.  Gampu portrayed Ntuku Makwena, a tribesman who is on trial for killing a man who ruthlessly murdered his daughter.  He was one of the first black South Africans to be featured in American motion pictures and television.Ken Gampu attracted attention for his role in the brutal adventure film The Naked Prey, directed and starred in by former Hollywood leading man Cornel Wilde.   Ken’s father Morrison also had a brief role in this film as a tribal chief of the 1820s Zambezi River area. The picture did well in South African cinemas because the government approved of its portrayal of an entire tribe being bested by one European.  It did not, however, do well in many areas of the UniteStates for the reason above.

By now Ken Gampu was traveling between the United States and South Africa, obtaining varied roles.  One was as an 18th century runaway slave in America who, with other slaves, kidnaps American frontiersman Daniel Boone’s son to get Boone to help them in an episode of the American television series Daniel Boone (1967) and another is as a modern day Kikuyu leader wanting to nurture future leaders in an episode of the American production Cowboy in Africa (1967).

Gravel Road Entertainment has made the banned Tonie van der Merwe film Joe Bullet available again. CREDITS: Gravel Road Entertainment

Ken Gampu was the action hero Joe Bullet in the 1973 South African film of the same name from Bullet Films. Like John Shaft orJames Bond he drove sports cars, fought bad guys using karate, escaped booby trap bombs, climbed up mines hafts and threw knives as he battled the criminal underworld that kidnapped star players on a local soccer team, The Eagles.  Joe Bullet was independently released and played at the Eyethu Cinema in Soweto.  After two screenings the film was pulled and all further screenings in South Africa were banned.  The South African government was uncomfortable with Joe Bullet living in a fine apartment, driving an expensive car, and using a gun.   Bullet on the Run (Focus Films, 1982) was the sequel.The ban was eventually lifted, but Joe Bulletproducer Tonie van der Merwe had the original film reels stored in his garage for about 40 years.   Channel24.co.za announced on January 24, 2017, that the film was to be screened at the Bioscope Independent Cinema in Johannesburg on January 24 and at The Company Gardens in Cape Town on January 25.

 

 

A remarkable publicity stunt for the 1982 film Shamwari, produced by the Four Jacks and a Jill Film Company, involved the white and black stars, Ian Yule and Ken Gampu  chained together to walk the 643 kilometers from Durban to Johannesburg.  This stunt tied in with the theme of the film.  I wonder if they indeed had to walk the entire way. The late 1970s and the 1980s brought many prominent roles for Gampu, including the role of Mantshonga in the 1979 Zulu Dawn NV/Samarkand production Zulu Dawn.  He was The President who narrowly misses being assassinated in the Jamie Uys classic comedy The Gods Must be Crazy in 1980.

Cannon Films released a more light hearted version of King Solomon’s Mines than previous film versions of the novel. Ken Gampu portrayed Umbopo. CREDITS: Cannon Films

 

 

In 1985 the H. Rider Haggard novel King Solomon’s Mines was updated by Cannon Group Productions to appeal to the cinemagoers who loved the Indiana Jones action adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Gampu was Umbopo, the only person in an archaeologist’s caravan in South Africa who knows the way to the location of the legendary King Solomon’s Mines.  Umbopo is enlisted by Allan Quatermain (Richard Chamberlain), who pursues and tries to rescue the single-minded scientist who wandered off somewhere in the desert one night.The film also starred Sharon Stone and Herbert Lom. A notable comedy for Ken Gampu was The Air Up There, produced in 1994 by Hollywood Pictures.

Ken worked in many made for television movies for the Schadeberg Company of South Africa, French television production companies and the British production company Yorkshire Television.

 

 

 

In 2001 Ken Gampu appeared as Ndhlovu in Askari, his final film.  Ken Gampu died at the age of 74 in his home in Vosloorus on November 4, 2003, survived by his wife Violet and his sons, Gatsha and Ken.  New generations continue to be entertained and inspired by his performances in over seventy films and television productions.