January 27, 2023

Vanguard Awards: Pete Edochie, Godfather of the big screen

Pete Edochie

By Benjamin Njoku, Deputy Entertainment Editor

AS one of the greatest African actors of all time, Pete Edochie’s name is enough for anyone to recognise him. He became an instant brand in the 1980s after his iconic role as Okonkwo in the NTA adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s bestselling novel, Things Fall Apart. And since then, Ebubedike, as he’s fondly called by his fans and colleagues, has remained an actor to beat on the continent.

To date, his name rings a bell whenever you talk about the contemporary African film sector. Edochie has cut the image of a lion in human skin on the big screen over the years. Like a leopard, the patriarch of the Nigerian movie industry has never changed his spot. He roars when it’s necessary and retreats to prepare for a battle ahead of him.

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That’s the true image Ebubedike has portrayed, both on screen and in real life. This legendary actor is known for his elegance, cultural embodiment, statesmanship, and mass appeal. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential actors in the African film industry, having spent more than 50 years of his life bringing joy to many homes throughout Africa and beyond. 

At 75, this thespian is still ruling the big screen and giving new actors a run for their money. Popular actor, Richard Mofe Damjio once described Pete Edochie as ‘a rare veteran’, acknowledging the fact that he’s not in the class of the septuagenarian actor. And that’s the way every stakeholder in the Nigerian movie industry sees Ebubedike.

Born on March 7, 1947, in Enugu, Pete Edochie had his early education at Saint Patrick’s and St. James Primary School, Zaria, Kaduna State, and later proceeded to Saint John’s Secondary School, Kaduna, in 1960. He dropped out of school in 1964 to work for his father on the railways. He spent a greater part of his childhood and teenage years in Kaduna before he fled the northern region in 1966. As a young man, three professions fascinated him: journalism, broadcasting, and acting. He would later reveal that he had managed to practise all the three.

He began his career in radio broadcasting at the Eastern Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation at the age of 20. He joined the organisation the same day as his wife, Josephine Edochie, who’s now a lawyer. By 1980, he had been formally trained as a broadcaster at the British Broadcasting Corporation, where he started off as a junior programmes assistant. In 1987, he became the pioneer director of Anambra Broadcasting Service 3 FM Stereo.

He retired as a broadcaster in 1988. According to him, he quit the ABS because the government decided to politicise the affairs of the FM station. This resulted in the entire management being asked to move out, including him. But despite the giant strides he has made in the broadcasting industry, Edochie left the industry for the big screen. Prior to his retirement, he delved into acting, featuring in the NTA adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. But the play was not his first project.

As he would later reveal, his first stage performance happened in 1962, when his school staged Merchant of Venice, a play by William Shakespeare. His role in Things Fall Apart, which he acted at the age of 38, was well portrayed, and this became his breakthrough project. The BBC flew into Nigeria to interview him for his role in that play, and it was awesome. In revealing how he landed the role of Okonkwo, Pete Edochie said: “The Zonal Director of NTA in Benin, G.C. Ugwu (now late), recommended him to play the role.

“He was invited to the audition, which was held at the main auditorium of the University of Nigeria, Enugu campus. The moment he walked into the auditorium, the white woman who was invited to handle costuming and other things saw him and screamed, “if this man could act, that’s the man we want for the role.”

According to Edochie, the crew said there was no point continuing with the audition; that the role was for him. It was the defining moment in his professional career.

The role also earned him the nickname, ‘Ebubedike,’ which Chinua Achebe was fond of calling him before his death. He said: “Achebe created the ‘Okonkwo’ character, and because he thought I would interpret the role perfectly well, he named me after Okonkwo-Ebubedike. So, a lot of people today still see me as Ebubedike.”

Pete Edochie has since become a Nollywood phenomenon. “Ikuku,” produced by Nkem Owoh, was the first movie that Pete Edochie did after his performance in Things Fall Apart. He has since starred in many big budget movies, including Rituals, Chain Reaction, Narrow Escape, Lost Kingdom, Holy Ghost Fire, Greedy Genius, Terrible Sin, Battle Line, Rejected Son, The Heart of Man, Last Ofalla, Lion Throne, Lion of Africa, Igodo, Evil Man, and King of the Jungle, among others.

Over time, Edochie’s role has evolved as he became a go-to character for roles of a disciplinarian father, king, wealthy man, and evil man and husband. The majority of his films are both critically acclaimed and massive box office hits. For him, none of his productions can be associated with failure, as he puts his all into any production he’s involved in.

In a career spanning four decades, the legendary actor has been a consistent and unstoppable movie star. He still delivers his lines and maintains his status as a godfather of Nollywood.  If anything, the septuagenarian actor has made his presence massively felt on the Nigerian big screen with a lot of critically acclaimed movies as well as many other commercially successful ones.

To say that Pete Edochie is versatile, and can fit into different roles in movies would be an understatement. If he’s not playing the role of Igwe (king), he’s playing that of an evil uncle, a disciplined father, or an occult grand master, among others. The bearded actor has starred in over 200 movies and still gets major roles since his breakthrough in the ’80s.

At 75, Pete Edochie is still starring in movies and giving some of his best performances ever. His performance in Genevieve Nnaji’s 2018 blockbuster movie, ‘Lion’s Heart’ is being talked about within the filmic circle. He has won many national and international awards. In 2014, Edochie was honoured with an AMVCA Industry Merit Award for his contribution towards the growth of the film sector in Africa.

He was presented with a brand new Hyundai SUV car, which was received, on his behalf by his son, Yul. In 2019, he was honoured with the Africa Movie Academy Award, AMAA, Lifetime Achievement Award , while the African Film Festival, TAFF, was held in Dallas, In 2003, former President, Olusegun Obasanjo honoured him with membership in the Order of the Niger (MON). He also bagged the City People Entertainment Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

From all indications, Pete Edochie has etched his name in the sands of time. Months ago, when he celebrated his 75 birthday, President Buhari described him as ‘one actor that brought the spotlight to Nigeria and Africa with his performance.’ “I congratulate the renowned actor for the many pioneering and motivating roles in the entertainment industry, hitting the limelight in the 1980s as Okonkwo in the screen adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” where his superb performance brought the spotlight to Nigeria and Africa,” Buhari said.

Edochie’s background of living and working extensively in various parts of the country and the world, after serving the government as staff of the Nigeria Railway Corporation and the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation, greatly shaped his global outlook and influenced his interpretation of roles as a thespian.

Buhari acknowledged that his role in the founding and growth of Nollywood as one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world deserves commendation, especially in incubating younger professionals and nurturing talents like his son, Yul Edochie. The quintessential actor draws his strength from these flowering attributes.

Married with six children, two of his sons, Yul and Linc, are leading Nollywood actors. When his six children graduated from university, the veteran actor said he bought them all cars to motivate them.

He added: “The minimum target for each of them was to graduate from a higher institution; their reward upon graduation is a car. “And where I come from, it is important to keep one’s word; I bought the car for each of them.” He recently celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with his amiable wife.

For anyone who enjoys Nigerian films, Pete Edochie is a living legend who continues the legacy of being the godfather of Nollywood. He has carried himself so well to earn an enviable place in the annals of history whenever the contemporary Nigerian movie industry is in the spotlight.