Jamaican icon of comedy, Oliver Samuels, was honoured for 50 years of excellence in theatre with the Living Legacy Award of the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP) on Wednesday.
Celebrated both locally and internationally as the King of Comedy, Samuels’ interest in theatre began at the age of seven. In fact, he believes that he did not choose comedy, rather “it chose me” he intimated.
The event was emceed by Joan McDonald, who had a lively conversation with Samuels about his early years growing up on a banana plantation in St Mary, and what inspires his altruistic spirit. “I am very familiar with sufferation,” he says. “I cannot know a child is hungry and not help them.”
After attending St Mary High School and Dinthill Technical High School, he worked in several clerical jobs at the Orange River Agricultural Station before venturing to Kingston.
Samuels then decided to pursue his ambition, studying at the Jamaica School of Drama from 1971 to 1973, and doing odd jobs to earn his keep.
While studying drama, a nervous young Samuels attended an audition at the Little Theatre; this is where his theatre career began. Oliver’s highly successful national pantomime debut put him on the map, when he played Moondrop in Music Boy, headlined by Louise Bennett and Ranny Williams. He went on to perform in 13 national pantomimes.
The medium of television was enormously successful for Samuels. In Jamaica, his comedy series on JBC during the 1980s and 1990s – Oliver, Oliver at Large, and Large and in Charge – brought him thousands of new fans at home and overseas. They laughed uproariously at his alter ego Olivius Adams’ antics. He has also appeared in more than 20 other overseas productions, including several with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Samuels occupies a unique position as a household name representing Jamaican theatre – and specifically Jamaican humour – overseas. He quickly established a warm rapport with audiences across the Caribbean. The Jamaican diaspora adopted him in the United States and the United Kingdom, where he has toured regularly to highly receptive audiences. He has acted in several films, including the 1976 adaptation of Trevor Rhone’s Smile Orange, and the cult classic Countryman in 1982. He has also appeared in Canadian, Italian and German films.
Jamaican Patois is a critical part of Samuels’ persona and performance. He describes cultural icon Louise Bennett-Coverley, ‘Miss Lou’, as his mentor. After a pantomime performance early in his career, he recalls Miss Lou asking him, “Likkle boy, where yuh come from?” He was thrilled when his idol told him that his recital of her poem Love Letta was the best interpretation she had ever heard.
Among his many awards, Samuels was conferred with the Order of Distinction in the rank of Officer (OD) in 1978. Earlier this year, he was upgraded to the rank of Commander Class (CD).
Samuel’s innate generosity and empathy with ordinary Jamaicans is a quality that has remained with him throughout his career. He has donated proceeds of his productions to several good causes. He has been a mentor for many young people, including his own children, as well as many others he has “taken under his wing”. He regards his children as his greatest blessing in life.
Jean Lowrie-Chin, board chair, CCRP, and directors Michael Fraser, Sethuraman Kumaraswamy and Patricia Reid-Waugh presented Samuels with his Living Legacy Award.
Sponsors of the CCRP Living Legacy event, Gallagher Insurance Brokers, represented by Saundra Bailey, and Jamaica National General Insurance, represented by Chris Hind, presented special gifts to Samuels. COK-Sodality Credit Union, represented by Aloun Assamba, former high commissioner, also presented tablets to Samuels to donate to a charity of his choice.