Adebayo Salami, popularly known as Oga Bello, is a veteran actor and an exemplary leader of great repute in the acting industry. The filmmaker, who is also the BoT chairman of the Theatre and Motion Pictures of Association of Nigeria (TAMPAN), has not only made a mark in the movie industry, his children are equally doing well as actors and movie producers. In this interview with SEYI SOKOYA, Oga Bello speaks about career, life, among other issues.
You started acting at a time when you had no inkling of how it would turn out. I mean, you never knew you could be this big. You have become a brand that has also given birth to many brands today. What can you recall of your early beginning?
Those days, parents didn’t want their children to go into acting, theatre or anything entertainment because the general belief was that anybody that went for such thing was a dropout or a lazy man, forgetting that God has blessed everyone with his or her own talent. I also had same experience; my passion for acting did not go well with my parents, adding to the policy of my country home, Ilorin, where they won’t allow you to go into anything entertainment.
Also, as the first son of my parents, the castigation was much but my passion was supreme. Right from childhood, I’ve had passion for anything that had to do with culture. So, I begged them; at a time, I ran away from home to squat with a late friend, Abayomi Aromire. He was older than me and I stayed with him for sometime before my people came to drag me out of the place. We were living in a church and Ilorin people would never want to hear that you converted to Christianity. So, when I left school, I joined the Federal Ministry of Works in 1974 as a Library Assistant. I was attached to the then Federal Commissioner, Femi Okunnu, after two years’ experience. I was his Personal Assistant until 1976; he asked me to resign because his tenure had ended. I resigned and followed him to be his personal assistant in his chamber because he’s a lawyer.
While I was there, I was still doing my acting on the side. I went into it full-time in 1976.
Today, things have changed a lot. If anybody had told me that I would make a living from acting, I’d have argued in the negative. At some points, I had to spend most of my salary on it without expecting anything. Today, it is quite different; acting is now putting food on many people’s tables. There was a time that all we had was just stage shows. Then, we had the travelling theatre which we called Alarinjo.
How have you managed to stay relevant?
If you continue to move with time, you’ll be relevant. We didn’t expect money from acting when we started. Today, we charge for it; that’s the difference. Most of our younger colleagues now don’t even bother to get proper training before they go into full-time acting.
Are you saying your relationship with Okunnu fascinated your love for Law and did that also contribute to your son’s decision to study Law?
I actually wanted to study law, but my passion for entertainment was overwhelming. I had to leave him because what we actually agreed upon in our group then, at the Young Stars Concert Party, had metamorphosed into the Ojo Ladipo Theatre group; we all agreed that everybody had to be doing it. So, I had to resign and left everything about Law behind me. In the case of my son, I don’t think so, because I don’t force my children to do anything. I give them the liberty to choose their careers. He was the one that was interested in studying Law. As God would have it, you know Alhaji Lateef Femi Okunnu is my godfather; I named my son, Lateef Femi Adebayo after him. I was surprised when he told me he wanted to study Law.
As one of the leaders in the industry, how have you been able to ensure that the elders are raising professionals that would produce quality movies just as those days?
We are doing our best but the rising rate of unemployment and poverty these days is pushing many people into acting. And, the bad thing about us (Nigerians) is that, once we perceive any opportunity, business or profession as lucrative, everybody wants to go into it, whether or not they have the experience, training or the knowledge about it. I always tell them that if you don’t learn it properly, you can’t know it.’
Also, we’re trying to curb the situation by organising seminars and educating young actors. I run a school; U-Bee Performing School of Art. My son, Femi, has a school called J15 and some other colleagues have too. If you don’t have enough money to go to a university to learn Theatre Arts, there are many other options. But, the problem is that they don’t follow through.
What do you think about the career path your children have chosen?
I didn’t force any of my children to take up acting. Not all of them are into acting. In fact, I don’t have any problem with that, because they have all done what I wanted, which is education. So, they have my full support in any career they venture in. If Femi had started as an actor, I would not spend so much money on him. But, I asked him to study Law based on his wish. Sodiq, who is into production management, is a geologist. He was offered a job at Chevron, which he turned down because of his passion. Tope Adebayo, who is a movie director, is a computer scientist. I also have another child, who is an editor, but she studied Computer Science too. So, they chose what they wanted and I never influenced them.
You claimed that the elders in the industry have been trying to mentor the younger ones in the industry, but the news is that some older actors are being sidelined by caucus of young actors. How will you react to this?
Sidelined? I don’t know what you meant about that and I don’t think that is true. I feel what must have brought about such insinuation is the kind of scripts we have these days. The actors of our age are hardly needed in some productions today, but that doesn’t mean that we are being sidelined.
You are one of the brains behind Motion Pictures Practitioners Council of Nigeria (MOPPICON) bill from the onset. What stage is it now?
Its motive at the time we were invited as steering committee, during the Obasanjo administration, they wanted us to speak with one voice instead of speaking in different voices, which I, as a person liked. So, we selected a few people from each association to form the steering committee. We talked about how to make things better and submitted it to former President Olusegun Obasanjo at that time. It got to the stage of going to the National Assembly before Obasanjo passed the baton. You know how things work in democracy. I think the present government also has the problem of dealing with individuals, that’s why MOPPICON has come back. I don’t know the stage it is right now because we’ve not been invited.
What effort are you making to ensure that both federal or state governments support the industry?
As I said earlier, I am doing my best. My state, Kwara, is working on a film village, Malete Film Village. The Lagos State government is also contributing its own quota in that regard. Everybody is trying their best and we respond whenever we are being called upon.
To what extent do you follow the new trend of making more profit through movie production?
I have never been found wanting in that area. I make use of all the mediums to market my works. I follow trends and I can never be laidback, because this is business. If you put your movie online, you’ll make money. Everything boils down to good production. In those days when we started with celluloid cinemas, for example, I produced Omo Orukan in 1997 with a total cost of production of about N490, 000 and you cannot do the post-production in Nigeria, I took it to the United States (US) because we don’t have the facilities. I remember the bill they gave me in a film corporation in New York was $27, 000. I had $25, 000 and I was looking for $2,000. How much was $2,000 in Naira at the time? N10, 000! I suffered before I could get that money. When I released the film at N5, the capacity of the main bowl was 3,600 people and it was a full house at 12 noon, 3pm and 6pm. All the money I borrowed was paid in time. The economy changed; we can no longer go for celluloid. It is now the era of online and we have to follow the trend if we want to be relevant. That’s the major problem we are facing.
Considering your wealth of experience and number of years you have spent in the industry, you should be planning to retire soon?
I’m still very much around. I am still very much active, even at locations. You don’t retire in acting; you blend with time; one can slow down because of age and health. But, I thank Allah how has blessed me with sound health. I’m not old yet, am I? I can fit into any role. The role I cannot play is taking a lady to a hotel. Such a role is for the young actors.
You starred in the popular movie, Omo Ghetto. How were you able to interpret the character in such manner?
It depends on how versatile you are and how you can interpret your role. If you’re given the character of the king, the easiest way to interpret it is to look for a character of a king you have come across and mimic him. For Omo Ghetto, we had a lot of such characters in Lagos. You make your research and put it into acting. We do a lot of rehearsals in front of the mirror until we perfect it.
How is your relationship with Ogogo, Yinka Quadri, and others?
They are all my children in the industry. We are very close. Remember, I am the chairman, Board of Trustees of TAMPAN.
You gave birth to 18 children, is this because of your love for children?
It is destiny. I did not plan for that initially, but things changed when stardom came, but I was unable to manage it. At a time, I didn’t like what I was doing, but there was nothing I could do. Then, people will always remind me of my destiny. I remember the time we used to go round, which I won’t ever do again, visiting Muslim clerics; they would ask if I was from a royal family because they could see me surrounded by many children. Now, that God has given me the children and they are all doing fine, you can see that it is destiny. I even advise my children not to dabble into polygamy; ‘you don’t need to have many children like me’. ‘You don’t know your destiny and I did not have the advantage of going about asking for your destinies.