Global Star Profiles: Olu Jacobs

by Meher Tatna June 26, 2020
Nigerian star Olu Jacobs

Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, is second only to Bollywood as a producer of films, putting out more than 2,000 of them a year. These days, it’s an $800 million business employing more than a million people, but just 30 years ago, in its fledgling state, it was churning out movies on the cheap, most of them shot within a week and generally for less than $25,000, with low production values and simplistic storylines. Even today, many of its lower budget movies go straight to DVD, but nevertheless sell hundreds of thousands of copies, a lot of them pirated. The reason for Nollywood’s popularity is that it tells the stories of Nigeria’s people that they don’t find elsewhere. Nigerian movie stars are more popular in Africa than Hollywood stars.

One of the most respected Nollywood stars is Oludotun Baiyewu Jacobs (known professionally as Olu Jacobs). The 78-year old actor is considered an icon by his fans, who call him Uncle Olu. While he has made over 120 movies in Nigeria, his 40-year career began in Britain, where he ran away from his Nigerian home to study acting. In 201, he told how that came about. “When I told my father I wanted to act, he said, ‘Act? What? Is play work? If play is not work, how can you say you want to play?’ As if that were not enough, I told him I wanted to go to England to study acting. He said no and tore up my application form. But fortunately for me, my brothers helped me secure my visa. The day I was ready to go, I had smuggled my suitcase out of the house the night before because I was afraid my father might call my uncle in Lagos to stop me. But nothing happened. That was how I went to London. Unfortunately, I never saw my father again.”

Jacobs trained at RADA in London, then found work in British TV in the 1970s. He appeared in shows such as The Goodies, Till Death Do Us Part, Barlow at Large, The Venturers, Angels, 1990, The Tomorrow People, and The Professionals. He had a recurring role in 1983’s ITV production of The Witches and the Grinnygog, which aired in the US on Nickelodeon. In 1978, he also appeared on stage in Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day.

In the 1980s, Hollywood called. Jacobs appeared opposite Christopher Walken and Tom Berenger in John Irving’s The Dogs of War in 1980. In 1985 he showed up in the Disney film Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend alongside William Katt and Sean Young; in 1986, Roman Polanski cast him in Pirates with Walter Matthau.

But all these were only bit parts or supporting roles, so Jacobs moved back to Nigeria where Nollywood was just starting up. In 2014, he talked to the Associated Press about the nascent industry in the 1990s.

“We all knew that we had a market,” he told the AP. “When I was growing up, cinemas were always filled. Stage performances were always full. Why shouldn’t there be (an industry)?” He explained that the main problem with film production was the lack of reliable electricity at the time. Daily power cuts were a way of life, and film producers had to pay a premium for generators to be sure of keeping the shooting going. Things have much improved since then, he added. “The quality of what we bring out now is not what we brought out, even five years ago.”

Jacobs is known as the ‘Igwe (King) of Nollywood,’ because of the number of times he’s played kings in the movies. Here’s the online describing his onscreen royal career. “He’s played the rich king, with a fleet of luxury cars. He’s played the traditional Igwe. He’s played the cuckolded Igwe. He’s played the devilish Igwe. He has also played the lover boy Igwe.”

Referring to his nickname, Jacobs has said: “Real Igwes who meet me, not in their palaces but at airports, outside, call me to tell me how much they appreciate what I am doing.” He describes himself as “a fine actor, best analyzer of character, and the best manipulator of words.”  He is renowned for his baritone voice and his interpretation of characters.

Jacobs’ roles as Igwe include The Kingmaker (2003), Royal Doom (2006), Royal Destiny (2007), The Prince and Me (2007), Throne of Tears (2008), Royal Tears (2009), Palace Slave (2010), Royal King (2011). His best known non-royal roles include Eye of the Gods (2004), Lonely Heart (2005), Forest of Tears (2009), and Oloibiri (2015). He won the African Movie Academy Award for best actor in 2007 for The Dancing Heart, a comedy about a writer (Jacobs) who gets inspiration by sending his young wife out to flirt with men.

His last film, The Royal Hibiscus Hotel, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017; since then, it appears he has retired. There were rumors of his death in early 2020 since he had not been seen in public for a while, but those were debunked by his family.

For his long career, Jacobs was awarded an Industry Merit Award in 2013 at the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards, as well as a lifetime achievement award by the same group in 2016.

Jacobs is known to have been a mentor to many young Nollywood actors who credit him with their careers. In 2009, he established the Lufodo Academy of Performing Arts in Lagos which offers a two-year conservatory program to aspiring young actors.