Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and a charismatic inspiration to Hollywood and millions around the world, died Thursday. He was 95.
Mandela, who was portrayed by Morgan Freeman, Sidney Poitier, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, David Harewood, Terrence Howard and others in TV and film, died in his bedroom at his suburban Johannesburg home.
South African President Jacob Zuma announced the death in nationally televised address.
He had been in intensive care since being discharged Sept. 1 after nearly three months in a hospital for a lung infection.
Idris Elba can now be seen playing the world leader alongside fellow British star Naomie Harris as his then-wife Winnie in The Weinstein Co. biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on his 1995 autobiography. The film, shot in part on the Eastern Cape, Mandela’s home province, opened last weekend in New York and Los Angeles and is a major awards contender this year.
“One of the privileges of making movies is having the opportunity to immortalize those who have made a profound impact on humanity,” TWC co-chairman Harvey Weinstein said in a statement. “We count ourselves unspeakably fortunate to have been immersed in Nelson Mandela’s story and legacy. It’s been an honor to have been granted such proximity to a man who will go down as one of history’s greatest freedom fighters and advocates for justice. I have had the privilege of spending time with President Mandela and I can say his sense of humor was as great as his optimism. We are deeply saddened by his loss; our hearts go out to his family and the entire South African nation.”
Added Elba: “What an honor it was to step into the shoes of Nelson Mandela and portray a man who defied odds, broke down barriers, and championed human rights before the eyes of the world. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Said Morgan Freeman, who played Mandela in Clint Eastwood‘s 2009 film Invictus: “Today the world lost one of the true giants of the past century. Nelson Mandela was a man of incomparable honor, unconquerable strength, and unyielding resolve—a saint to many, a hero to all who treasure liberty, freedom and the dignity of humankind. As we remember his triumphs, let us, in his memory, not just reflect on how far we’ve come, but on how far we have to go. Madiba may no longer be with us, but his journey continues on with me and with all of us.”
Added Paul Simon, who received Mandela’s blessing to tour in South Africa in 1992: “Mandela was one of the great leaders and teachers of the 20th century. He conceived a model for mortal enemies to overcome their hatred and find a way through compassion to rebuild a nation based on truth, justice and the power of forgiveness. His passing should reignite a worldwide effort for peace.”
The central figure in the nearly half-century-long battle to end South Africa’s system of racial segregation known as apartheid, Mandela at first supported a Gandhi-inspired nonviolence campaign against oppression (similar to what Martin Luther King Jr. tried in the U.S.). But after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in which white South African police killed 69 nonviolent black protestors, he increasingly favored the idea of armed resistance. He was arrested in 1962 for inciting a strike and sent to prison for five years.
Two years later, while still in jail, Mandela and 10 colleagues were given life in prison for sabotage. During the proceedings at the infamous 1964 Rivonia Trial, he made a series of electrifying speeches before the court and became an international celebrity.
That year, actor Marlon Brando spoke out against South African segregation, and a year later singer Harry Belafonte released an apartheid protest album. British actors forbade their television programs from playing in the country, and plays from South Africa were banned in the U.S. and England.
The explosion of new music and other forms of entertainment that was happening throughout the free world in the 1960s was muted in South Africa, as the nation remained stuck in a cultural vacuum — a fact vividly captured in Malik Bendjelloul‘s 2012 Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man, about the American singer Rodriguez.
Meanwhile, with apartheid prohibiting multiracial competitions, the International Olympic Committee disinvited South Africa from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, then formally expelled the country from the organization in 1970. Many other sporting bodies followed.
In the 1980s, as worldwide pressure mounted on South Africa to change its ways, the slogan “Free Nelson Mandela” became the basis for a hit from the pop band The Special A.K.A. A 1985 album, Sun City, produced by Steven Van Zandt and featuring contributions from such “Artists Against Apartheid” as Peter Gabriel, Miles Davis and others, was released.
A 70th anniversary birthday concert for Mandela, held in June 1988 in London’s Wembley Stadium, drew worldwide attention, with an estimated 600 million people listening around the world. Among the performers were Joe Cocker, Sting, Phil Collins and Whitney Houston.
Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990 as South Africa gave in and abolished apartheid. He was elected president in April 1994 with 62 percent of the national vote and served one term, ending in March 1999.
Mandela mostly retired from public life after that, though he remained a world hero. One of his last public appearances was at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup soccer final in Johannesburg.
Over several decades, many Hollywood adaptations have mined Mandela’s inspirational story.
Glover portrayed the leader in 1987 HBO telefilm, and a 1997 TV movie directed by Joseph Sargent and filmed in South Africa starred Poitier as Mandela opposite Michael Caine as F.W de Klerk, the nation’s last apartheid-era president.
Goodbye Bafana (2007) centered on Mandela’s friendship with a white prison guard. Haysbert, who portrayed Mandela in that project, said at the Berlin premiere that year: “The only doubts I had were about my worthiness, if I were worthy to play arguably one of the top five human beings to have ever stepped foot on this planet.”
Howard played Mandela in Winnie, which focused on the leader’s ex-wife (Jennifer Hudson) and premiered at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival.
Freeman portrayed the anti-apartheid leader in Clint Eastwood‘s 2009 rugby film Invictus and was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor.
“When you meet Mandela, you know you are in the presence of greatness. It is something that just emanates from him,” said Freeman. He watched the film with the former president, who pointed at the screen and said, “I know that fella.” Freeman concluded, “Yeah, I think he liked it.”
Still, the actor who has portrayed the U.S. president in Deep Impact and God in Bruce Almighty said standing in for Mandela was difficult. “Playing God is not a challenge at all … and playing the president, who’s the president? He’s just a guy,” Freeman said. “Mandela’s not just a guy.”