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DEATH OF HENRY CELE (article first published : 2007-11-3)

Henry Cele, a leading figure on the South African and international film and theatre scene, died in Durban yesterday morning (November 2) at the age of 57. He had suffered from chest problems for some time and his death was caused by respiratory failure.

This brings to an end a career that has spanned all of 20 years from the time when he was a well-known and successful soccer goalie known as Black Cat Cele.

Tall and rangy with a direct gaze and deep commanding voice, Henry rocketed to international stardom in the title role of the monumental film Shaka Zulu, producing a definitive portrayal of the legendary monarch who founded the Zulu nation.

Henry was discovered by film director William Faurè who saw him playing the main role in a production titled Shaka Zulu mounted in Durban in the now-defunct Little Abbey Theatre.

“When they auditioned one thousand people for the title role of the film, Shaka Zulu, William chose Henry,” says Henry’s agent, Penny Charteris.

There were concerns that Henry would become a massive star once Shaka Zulu was launched and Penny Charteris was asked to take him under her wing. She flew down to Durban, met him, and agreed to put him on her agency books. Thus began a successful professional relationship and strong personal friendship that was to last Henry’s whole acting career.

“Henry had the most incredible charisma,” Penny remembers. “He was followed by people in their hundreds. I remember we took him to the Rand Show and at any time we were surrounded by about two or three hundred people. He had such charm and generosity of nature. Nobody was too small for him to talk to. It didn’t matter who the person was, he would make them feel important and special. He accepted the fame that came to him as a God-given gift and I don’t know of anybody in the 20 odd years of our association who actually had any bad words to say about him.”

Henry Cele played the leading roles in the television productions Running Free, The Tangeant Affair, Letlaka, Ifa Lacwanthethwa and Rutanga Tapes. He was a guest artist in Tropical Heat. Lead roles in film productions included In The Name of Blood, The Last Samurai, Panga, The Trackers, Dark Mountain, Killer Instinct and the film version of the stage musical Ipi Tombi. His most recent production is a sequel to Shaka Zulu entitled Shaka - the Citadel.

“For the last couple of years, Henry had been tremendously involved in coaching young underprivileged youngsters in soccer because of his background in the game,” adds Penny. “This work took him around South Africa and abroad. There have been many job offers lately but he distanced himself in the past few weeks to deal with his illness.”

Artists’ agent and Durban-based casting director Peter Gardner worked with Henry on Shaka Zulu. He also liaised with Penny Charteris for work Henry did in Durban.

“In the twenty plus years I knew Henry, he was very definitely a people’s person,” says Peter. “Whenever I called him in for a casting, I knew that I would have to allocate an extra half an hour because he needed the time to chat to my staff, who are now all devastated by the news of his death, and also to catch up with what Caroline and I were up to at the time. Always the gentleman, Henry, my thoughts are with you and yours at this time of both mourning and celebration of a life fulfilled.”

Henry Cele leaves a major void in the South African and international film and theatre arena. I will never forget that glorious resonant voice that always reminded me of luxuriant black velvet. – Caroline Smart




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