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During the darkest days of apartheid, Ken Gampu, who has died aged 74, became the first black South African film star, and an inspiration to a generation of black South African actors by appearing in several international productions. There was a price to be paid, however, because most of the roles he was called upon to play were those of stereotypical noble savages.
As the independent filmmaker Peter Davis writes in his book, In Darkest Hollywood: "When Hollywood seized on Africa, it became a vast hunting ground for the white man; the pictures of the native people are scarcely distinguishable from those of the animal trophies."
Even when there were interracial friendships, in such films as Dingaka (1964) and The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), both of which featured Gampu, they only existed "in a fictive South Africa that bore little resemblance to reality. The stories showed a South Africa where black/white friendships existed, by misrepresenting the harsh facts of increased racial divisions within South African life."
Gampu, like Paul Robeson many years earlier, had little choice. However, according to Eddie Mbalo, chief executive of South Africa's National Film and Video Foundation: "Ken paved the way for many talented black actors to start recognising their abilities. He also provided our local actors with the motivation to become bigger stars, proving that not even Hollywood is beyond their reach."
Testifying to this influence is Vusi Kunene, one of today's finest South African actors, who had wanted to act ever since he was six years old and saw Gampu in Dingaka. "That image of Ken opened up a whole new world for me," he explained. "My family was poor, and the traditional Zulu stories my mother told us were very real. Dingaka was such a story - good versus evil, tribal justice versus white law - and a hero who takes on a crooked sangoma (healer) to avenge the death of his child. I was hooked."
Dingaka, the first feature directed by Jamie Uys, was unusual for a South African production because it tackled issues of culture and race in a non-simplistic manner, and Gampu's character was more than the usual adjunct to whites. In the story, when a black tribesman (Gampu) avenges the murder of his daughter, following tribal laws, his quest leads him into the white courts, where justice for the black man simply does not exist.
The imposing, 6ft 2in tall Gampu was born in Germiston, not far from Johannesburg. He worked as a physical training instructor, a furniture salesman, an interpreter - he spoke seven native dialects, in addition to English and Afrikaans - and a policeman before a musician friend told him that Athol Fugard was looking for a tall man with a good voice to act in his first play, No Good Friday (1958), a cynical and embittered study of racism. The following year, Gampu had a part in King Kong, the hit musical about a black boxer, which had a successful run in London.
A year later, he made his first film, Tremor, about a South African mine disaster, but his real break came in Dingaka, when he was 35. When Cornel Wilde went to South Africa to make his ethnographic adventure film The Naked Prey (1966), he cast Gampu as the warrior chief of a tribe of headhunters.
Between 1968 and 1970, Gampu spent two years in Hollywood, though he had few roles. He was, however, able to use his sonorous voice in a Los Angeles poetry reading, directed by Richard Harris, alongside Edward G Robinson, Peter Sellers, Mia Farrow and Faye Dunaway.
Despite the daily humiliations suffered by black South Africans under apartheid, Gampu decided to return to his native land. "This is my home, my roots are here," he said. He once described how he would walk through Joubert Park in Johannesburg, and "dream about sitting on one of those benches marked Whites Only".
For the most part, Gampu's response to apartheid was dry humour, although the slightest perception that he was being patronised would bring some bitterness to the surface. In 1975, he played Lennie in a South African stage production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men, to much critical acclaim - but only after the department of Bantu administration had given him permission to share a stage with whites. "For the first time, the black man was on an equal footing with the white man," he told an interviewer. "And you know, the heavens didn't fall."
Gampu continued to appear in colonial-themed films, where equality was barely discernible. He fought Burt Lancaster in Zulu Dawn (1979), played the title role of Morenga (1985), a rebel against the German colon-ialists in 1904 who flees to South Africa only to find the British just as bad, and supported Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone in King Solomon's Mines (1985), playing Umbopa, the character portrayed by Robeson in the superior 1937 version.
One of his last films, a relief from colonial adventures and exploitative martial arts pictures such as American Ninja 4: The Annihilation (1991), was A Reasonable Man (1999), a courtroom drama of tribal rituals, directed by actor Gavin Hood, which revisited the world of Dingaka.
Gampu, who lived most of his life in a modest home in the East Rand, is survived by his wife and two sons.
· Ken Gampu, actor, born 1929; died November 4 2003