Orlando Martins

Orlando Martins (8 December 1899 – 25 September 1985) was a pioneering Nigerian film and stage actor. In the late 1940s, he was one of Britain's most prominent and leading black actors,[1] and in a poll conducted in 1947, he was listed among Britain's top 15 favourite actors.[2]

Orlando Martins
Born(1899-12-08)8 December 1899
Lagos, Lagos State, Nigeria
Died25 September 1985(1985-09-25) (aged 85)
Lagos, Lagos State, Nigeria
Other namesPa Orlando Martins (Epega family great-uncle)
Years active1931–71


Martins was born in Lagos, Nigeria, to a Brazilian civil servant father and a Nigerian mother. He was related to the Benjamin Epega family. In 1913 he was enrolled in Eko Boys High School but dropped out.[3] During World War I he served as a stoker on the RMS Mauretania to avenge German cruelty to his family. Following the end of the war, he moved to London; on arrival in 1919 he had no source of income and had to look for ways to earn money. Around the same time, the Lyceum Theatre was looking for "supers" at the rate of three shillings per day. Martins joined the theatre and from there took on various theatre jobs to survive. In 1923, Sanger's Circus wanted to have someone to display pythons, Martins took the part starting his performing career in the circus. He also worked as a wrestler (known as "Black Butcher Johnson").[4]


In 1920, Martins was an extra acting with the Diaghilev ballet company, and was on the tour with the British company of Show Boat as a professional singer. He was an extra in silent films, having made his debut in If Youth But Knew (1926).[4] In the 1930s he went into acting on the London stage,playing Boukman in Toussaint L'Ouverture, a 1936 drama by C. L. R. James that starred the legendary Paul Robeson,[5] with whom Martins had featured in the 1935 film Sanders of the River.[6]

After the war, Martins had films roles in The Man from Morocco (1945) and in Men of Two Worlds (1946), alongside Robert Adams, becoming a sought-after character actor who was described by Peter Noble in 1948 as "a tall, powerful figure of a man with a deep bass voice, friendly, hospitable and with a grand sense of humour."[4] Noble went on to say of Martins: "He is keenly interested in the foundation of a Negro Theatre in London. As he points out: 'If this ever comes into being it will mean not only that Negro talent in every theatre can be shown to the world, but a continuity of employment for this talent which is now going sadly to waste.'"[7]

He appears in the 1949 film The Hasty Heart (starring Ronald Reagan and Patricia Neal) playing the African warrior Blossom, which role Martins also undertook in the stage production.[3] In the 1950s he made other appearances on the London stage, including in adaptations of Cry, the Beloved Country (Trafalgar Square Theatre, 1954), and The Member of the Wedding (Royal Court Theatre, 1957), before returning to Lagos in 1959.[3] He subsequently took roles in such films as Killers of Kilimanjaro (1960), Call Me Bwana (1963), Mister Moses (1965), and Kongi's Harvest (1970, Wole Soyinka's adaptation of his play of the same name).

Martins died in 1985 at the age of 85 in Lagos, where he was buried at Ikoyi Cemetery.[4]


1935 Sanders of the River Klova Uncredited
1937 The Green Cockatoo Uncredited
1945 The Man from Morocco Jeremiah
1946 Men of Two Worlds Magole
1947 The End of the River Harrigan
1949 The Hasty Heart Blossom
1954 West of Zanzibar M'Kwongi
1953 The Heart of the Matter Rev. Clay Uncredited
1954 West of Zanzibar M'Kwongwi
1955 Simba Headman
1956 Safari Jerusalem
1957 Abandon Ship Sam Holly
1957 Tarzan and the Lost Safari Chief Ogonooro
1958 The Naked Earth Tall Bearer
1959 Sapphire Barman
1959 The Nun's Story Kalulu
1960 Killers of Kilimanjaro Chief
1963 Sammy Going South Abu Lubaba
1963 Call Me Bwana Chief
1965 Mister Moses Chief
1970 Kongi's Harvest Dr. Gbenga
1971 Things Fall Apart (final film role)


  1. Harry Levette, "This is Hollywood". Chicago Defender, 10 September 1949, p. 25.
  2. Al Monroe, "Swinging the News," Chicago Defender, 18 October 1947, p. 19.
  3. "Orlando Martins, Hollywood’s first Yoruba Actor", Yoruba 365, 12 November 2014.
  4. Stephen Bourne, Black in the British Frame: The Black Experience in British Film and Television, London: Continuum, 2001; chapter 7, "Robert Adams and Orlando Martins: Men of Two Worlds", pp. 76–80.
  5. C. L. R. James, Christian Høgsbjerg, Laurent Dubois, Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts, Duke University Press, 2012, p. 25.
  6. "Orlando Jones," AFI Catalog.
  7. Peter Noble, The Negro In Films, Skelton Robinson, 1948, p. 178; quoted in Bourne (2001), p. 78.

Further reading

  • Takiu Folami, Orlando Martins, the Legend: an intimate biography of the first world acclaimed African film actor, Lagos, Nigeria: Executive Publishers, 1983.
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