Stella Dimoko Orlando Martins The 1st Nigerian Hollywood Star Who Became An Actor By Happenstance..


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Monday, August 31, 2020

Orlando Martins The 1st Nigerian Hollywood Star Who Became An Actor By Happenstance..

From leaving Nigeria at the age of 18 to joining the British Navy during the First World War, to taking up several menial jobs just to survive in London after the war, Orlando Martins’ journey to becoming a film Legend and a globally-acclaimed actor was full of thorns and spikes, still he blossomed like a rose.

Widely acclaimed as the first African to appear in British film, in his biography published in 1983, Martins said he is “very very happy to say that I am one of the pioneers, if not the pioneer African film star.”

His journey to the screen was not pre-planned, it was happenstance. His motive for leaving Nigeria for London was to enlist in the British Navy and be part of the civil war but he found himself in theatre. At first he was doing it to survive but he later took it as a career.

In his 1948 book ‘The Negro in Films’, Peter Noble described him as “a tall, powerful figure of a man with a deep bass voice, friendly, hospitable and with a grand sense of humour. He is keenly interested in the foundation of a Negro Theatre in London.

Martins was born in 1899 in Lagos to Emmanuel Akinola Martins and Paula Idowu Soares. His paternal grandfather was a liberated Portuguese slave, who sold wood and died at age 120. Educated at Eko Boys’ High School in Lagos, he worked as a bookkeeper with a French firm in Lagos after leaving Eko Boys in 1916.

During the First World War, his grandmother became a prisoner of war and it was her plight at the hands of the German forces who had held the Cameroons that made him abandon his job in Lagos and travelled to London in 1917. His migration to London at the age of 18 was neither in search of greener pasture nor to study, which was common among many young Nigerians at the time.

Martins left Nigeria for London with the aim of joining the British Navy so he could fight on the side of the British forces against the German in the World War. In London, he could only enroll in the Merchant Marine because he was too young to join the Navy and Martins served in the Merchant Marine until the end of the war. After then, he decided to settle in London in 1919 and took interest in theatre as a means of survival.

In 1920, Martins made his first theatrical appearance as a Nubian Slave, a role he later said he hated, but took it because “I was young and hungry and had no other choice”.

To survive in London, Martins took up a series of menial jobs, from working as a Porter to being a wrestler known as ‘Black Butcher Johnson’; he was a snake-charmer; night watchman; kitchen porter; road sweeper before finally making his debut in ‘If Youth But Knew’ in 1926. In 1928 he joined the Mississippi Chorus of the musical Show Boat at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and later toured Britain with the production.

His journey to being Africa’s acclaimed first movie star was not as rosy as many would want to believe, especially as he is globally acclaimed as the first African movie star. He took on more than a few humiliating roles only to guarantee his livelihood. The kind of roles Martins played in films became subject of debate in publications. A film journal – The Cinema Studio in October 1951 strongly made a case for the kind of roles Martins played in films and suggested better roles.

The journal wrote: “Orlando’s talents, together with a delightful sense of humour, could be employed by a film producer without any attempt at propaganda but merely as entertainment to show the negro as a warm, sensible, charming human being in our modern way of life.”

Martins also acted on stage in a couple of plays with American actor Paul Robeson. During the Second World War (1939-1945), Martins was engaged in important works for the war which took him away from theatre for four years. On his return in 1945, he starred as Jeremiah, the international Brigadier, in ‘The Man from Morocco’, and his performance was widely commended. He was also cast as the influential witch doctor ‘Magole’ in ‘Men of Two Worlds’. These two roles, according to his biography, established Martins as one of Britain’s most sought-after actors.

One of Martin’s most memorable roles was ‘Blossom the Basuto Warrior’ in ‘The Hasty Heart’, which he played on the stage in London in 1945 and later in the screen version in 1949 with Ronald Reagan, who later became the 40th President of the United States (1981–1989). In ‘Sanders of the River’ (1936), Martins played the role of ‘K’lova’ acting alongside Jomo Kenyatta who also emerged the Prime Minister and President of Kenya. He made several stage appearances in London in the 1950s until he returned to Nigeria in 1959 to settle in Lagos.

On his return to Lagos at the age of 60, Martins accepted only occasional acting roles and while the curtains were gradually falling on his acting career, in his 70s, he appeared as a cameo in two of the most iconic Nigerian films in the 1970s which were adaptations of the books of Nigerian literary icons – Wole Soyinka’s ‘Kongi Harvest’ (1970) and Chinua Achebe‘s ‘Things Fall Apart’ (1971).

In 1970, the British Actors’ Equity Association conferred an honorary life membership award on Martins in recognition of his long career in British films. In 1982, he was conferred with the Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) by President Shehu Shagari. In 1983 he received the National Award in Theatre Arts by the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artistes during a ceremony at the University of Calabar.

After a career spanning over 60 years, Martins died in Lagos at the age of 86 and was buried at the Ikoyi Cemetery.

from @neusroom on Instagram


  1. Wow!!! And this is what i call a fulfilled life.

  2. Wow! Such a talented man he was. God continue to bless his soul

  3. Now this is both an Icon and a Legend. The tale of a handsome African who broke barriers and boundaries in a world where Africans were not recognized. I can imagine his fears,pains and more in a “white” dominated world. Continue to rest on.

  4. Wow! Such a legend. I enjoyed reading this.

  5. Wow, such a fulfilled life. Grass to grace story. He came ,he saw and he conquered.

  6. He was a an icon and a great man indeed!

  7. Wow ! This is a life well spent.

  8. A movie should be made about him

  9. He was a nice disciplined man. We called him uncle Orlando. He was my grandmother's brother. May his soul rest in peace. I remember my mum taking us on visit to his house from time to time when I was young.


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