Sam Phillips has been a familiar face on local screens for over three decades. But watching the predominantly Xhosa characters he portrayed in the eighties and the Sesotho ones in recent times, you will be forgiven to think that these roles have been played by two different actors.
He seems to have evolved not only in physical appearance but in linguistic preferences. Those who are familiar with IsiXhosa productions of the eighties when black television was still a novelty will remember him in popular series such as Umzi Nezinto Zawo (1987).
Directly translated as a household and its issues, the series focuses on the unfortunate reality of a couple involved in extramarital affairs and how their infidelities affect their loved ones – particularly their son, Xolani (Mongezi Qupe) who decides to find solace in drugs and lands in hospital while the daughter, Nomhle (Xoliswa Alli) becomes rebellious.
Only the youngest child, Thulisa, with her sense of humour and childish pranks provides some comic relief in this troubled family.
The estranged couple, Jongile and Nobhotwe is portrayed by Phillips and Nonkosi Futa respectively. Jongile is a bearded man in his late thirties. He spots a huge Afro and dresses in a way that is reminiscent of African American actor Richard Roundtree in the 1970s blaxploitation cult movie, Shaft.
It is a far cry from the elderly, clean-shaven Phillips of recent times who is more often than not cast in Sesotho and Setswana roles. And although he was born and raised in Langa, Cape Town his characters speak these languages with the fluency of native speakers.
Take his role of Mudala (Old Man) in Ke Ba Bolelletse (I Told Them), currently running in its new season on SABC2 every Saturday at 8:30pm. Set in an immaculate, four-roomed house in Tumahole, a Parys township in the Free State, the Sesotho-language sitcom follows the peccadilloes of the Mokoena extended family.
The crazy goings-on in this household are of particular interest and concern to Mudala by virtue of his position as the family patriarch.
He’s a shrewd observer and sharp commentator on his brood’s shenanigans and he uses comic narrative to drive the point home, often to the amusement of the in-house audience.
Although the wise old man is the rational and sane voice in this madness and eccentricity, he usually gets into trouble with his children who often feels that he is poking his nose into affairs that don’t concern him.
But such is the extent of his concern for this family he is afraid that when he dies, it will collapse.
And whenever things go wrong in this family, he reminds audiences of his wisdom as he shrugs his shoulders, sighs and says, ke ba bolelletse (I have told them so). Phillips began his acting career in 1974 at the Space Theatre in Cape Town.
In 1976 he was a cast member of Fatima Dike’s Sacrifice of Kreli, a historical play that premiered at The Space and was later staged at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg.
When black television was introduced in 1981, he was one of the stage actors who ventured into television acting. More than forty years later, Phillips’ vast experience have garnered him varied skills as a director, writer, producer and composer which he has put to good use in a number of significant productions both at home and abroad.