EXCLUSIVE! Oh Shucks,Here Comes Shorty!
WHO would have thought that fast-paced funnyman and local actor Alfred Ntombela started off his life being the kid no one wanted. When he was just a baby, Alfred was abandoned by his biological mother and taken in by another family member. His early days were spent playing in the dusty streets of the township of Vosloorus – building wire cars and making homemade plastic kites. There were many nights he went to bed hungry.
As fate would have it, lady luck smiled down on the little boy with the big laugh and, when he was six years old, Alfred’s life took a different turn. He befriended a local actor and within months was performing in front of the cameras, alongside Leon Schuster in some of South Africa’s most heart-warming films. We spent a morning with Alfred and found out that there is far more to him than his acting skills, uncanny ability to imitate farm animals (and cellphones) and that crazy laugh that has made him world famous.
I heard you had a pretty tough childhood. What happened?
My mom fell pregnant with me when she was very young. At the time she was unemployed. She left my dad before I was born because he was an albino and my mom was afraid she would be ostracised by the community for having a child with a ‘white man’. She never went back to him. When I was just a few weeks old, she abandoned me and my mother’s uncle’s wife took me in and raised me as her own. My real dad died when I was three years old, so I never had the chance to get to know him. Only years later did I discover that he had other wives and I have stepbrothers.
While growing up we never had a lot but I do have some fond childhood memories. I had lots of friends in the area where we lived. We would build wire cars, use polish tins and make popcorn inside them and pretend we were wild animals and the streets were jungles. My favourite thing was making plastic kites. The other kids were always jealous over my kite building skills and would cut my kite strings out of spite! Even now, I am good at making kites out of plastic or newspaper.
Were you ever teased because of your small stature?
Never. In fact, I used my size to my advantage. My adoptive mom said when I was just six years old I was running under the table without knocking my head. She used to put me on her back and would only have to pay for one passenger on the taxi! Because my birth wasn’t registered, I didn’t have an ID book. On the first day of ‘big school’, the teachers refused to take me in because they said I was too young. I have never had a problem talking for myself and would tell them straight – ‘I was born in 1972 on April 3 – I know the day because it was Easter Monday. I am small but I am old enough to come to school’. They’d drill me with question after question but I had an answer for every one.
Have you always been a funny guy?
I’ve always been the guy who does things completely differently to everyone else, which I guess makes me funny. Even as a kid, I’d dress up in hats and suits and hold a walking stick or umbrella, which became like trademarks. I was like a modern-day Charlie Chapman.
How did you start acting?
A few blocks from our home lived the late actor Ken Gampu – who starred in movies like No Good Friday (1958), Dingaka (1965), The Naked Prey, John Ross and Shaka Zulu. When I heard he was in the movies, I was determined to meet him. I remember knocking on his door and introducing myself and telling him my wild dreams of becoming an actor too one day. He asked me what I could do and I said I could imitate a cat, dog and phone, and I did it for him. His eyebrows lifted and he looked at me like I was crazy, but instead of crushing my acting dreams, he said he would see what he could do for me. I was a pain in the neck and would visit him all the time. He knew I meant business. Eventually, he got me a job at Heyns Films in Halfway House. I started doing a kids’ programme called Ikhaya Labantwana – which was a huge hit in the early ‘80s. Even though I hadn’t gone to acting school, I was a natural in front of the camera. I did the programme for five years and it eventually became a multi-language show, combining English and Zulu (with subtitles).
When did you first meet Leon Schuster?
Gampu heard rumours that Leon was looking for a child actor for one of his movies but couldn’t find a child young enough for the role, but old enough to be able to read a script. As luck had it, I had learnt how to read from a very young age. Gampu came and fetched me and took me to an editing studio where Leon was doing castings. He asked me to read a script, which I did. He wasn’t elated by my performance, and put the script aside. At the end of our meeting, Leon cracked a joke and I just burst out laughing. Leon screamed ‘yes’ – and his eyes lit up like a firework. I got the job.
So it was your laugh that made you stand out from all the others?
For sure. I see my laugh as a gift from God and it’s my best asset. Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to laugh too much because I don’t want to misuse it. I don’t want it to ever be taken away from me.
What is it like working with Leon?
He makes me feel like I’m still at school and still have so much to learn. He’s like a father to me. The most valuable thing he has taught me is that, when it comes to acting, you have to become the character and let go of all your inhibitions.
Your big screen début came in 1990 with the film Oh Shucks! Here Comes U.N.T.A.G!. What was the movie about?
The movie was about a rugged farmer named Kwagga ‘The Lion-Killer’ Robertse, who had to deal with a corrupt major in the UN peace corps. Kwagga owns a farm shop in the fictional southern African country of Nambabwe and usually cons foreign tourists by pretending to kill a lion, thus earning him the nickname ‘Urumbo’ (Lion Killer) from the country’s natives. Kwagga is upset when the UN sends a platoon of incompetent soldiers with the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (U.N.T.A.G.), to monitor the peace process, and ensure free and fair elections after the Nambabwean War for Independence. It’s a great film and one you have to see.
From what I understand, there were some legal issues around payment for your role in that movie. Can you talk about it?
I was still a minor when I got the role and so all the money that came from the movie had to be kept in my biological mother’s bank account. When I turned 21, I contacted her and asked if we could go and open my own account and transfer the money. I kept asking her when we could go, but she kept ignoring me. Eventually, she told me that there was no money – she had spent every last cent of it. I was crushed. The last time I saw her was just before my granny’s funeral about four years back. We hugged each other and spoke briefly but there was tension between us – and we could both feel it. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to heal our relationship.
In your opinion, what has been your most successful movie?
Sweet ‘n Short – Oh Schucks… It’s The New South Africa! (1991). I got a certificate for Best Supporting Actor from Ster Kinekor for my role as Alfred Short. It was also great to act alongside other actors like Casper de Vries and Joanna Weinberg.
I heard a pretty funny moment happened on set between Leon and Joanna.
(Laughs) Joanna was wearing this short, tiny dress that showed off the best bum in the business. Leon and her were pretending to be a couple when something happened in Leon’s pants. He tried to hide it but it was broad as daylight. I burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. The director shouted ‘cut’ and that’s when I told him why I was laughing. The whole crew joined in while Leon just blushed and tried to hide the family jewels. I’ll never forget that moment.
Do people recognise you and stop you in the street?
A lot. Even if I wear a cap and glasses they wave me down and ask, ‘aren’t you that guy who acts in those funny movies?’ People always ask me the same three things – ‘where is Leon Schuster?’, ‘when are you doing another movie?’, and ‘can you laugh for us, please?’.
Do you ever laugh at yourself while watching your movies?
If I haven’t seen any editing I do laugh at myself. But like most things in life, it’s only funny the first time around.
I heard you’ve thrown your weight behind the Outeniqua Wheelchair Challenge, taking place in George on February 18. Why the interest in this race?
Every year, hundreds of athletes with disabilities enter and train hard for this event. I think it’s really important for people to show their support for these athletes. On the day, I’ll be running next to them, catching a lift on their laps, and just generally showing my support. It’s going to be a wonderful event.
Last year, you celebrated the birth of your daughter. What is it like being a dad?
I have two children – a son who is 11 years old and lives with his mom, and a daughter who was born on September 21, last year. I love being a dad. Having a child is a gift and everyday I strive to give my kids the life I didn’t have. My children will always have cake on their birthdays, their daddy will always tell them how special they are and I will always show them unconditional love. Through them, I feel like I’m having my childhood over.
What movie are you currently working on?
I’m busy with a movie called Booty And The Beast, which we started shooting last year. It’s about two guys who don’t get along and fight all the time but in the end they realise that they’ve got a lot more in common with each other than they thought. The movie was supposed to come out in June 2012 but there have been delays so it may only hit the circuit a little later. It’s filmed in Gauteng but the sponsor is from Disneyland and so the film is going to go international.
Outside of acting, you’re opening a casting agency. Exciting times.
Very. Shorty Casting Agent And Production was supposed to open in January but I’m still waiting for my registration certificate. My aim is to uproot the hidden acting talents that so many South Africans have but don’t yet know they have. I want to light people up and say, ‘do it!’. I want to give them the skills they need to face the camera and teach them how to act.