Early life and move to Europe
Born Lamine Sekka in Dakar, Senegal, the youngest of five siblings, his Gambian father died shortly after his birth. When he was still young, his Senegalese mother sent him to live with an aunt in Georgetown (now Janjanbureh) in the Gambia, but he ran away to live on the streets in the capital, then known as Bathurst (now Banjul). In the Second World War, he worked as an interpreter at an American air base in Dakar. He then worked on the docks. When he was 20, he stowed away on a ship to Marseilles, and lived for three years in Paris.
He arrived in London, England in 1952, and served in the RAF for two years, but then Caribbean actor Earl Cameron persuaded him to become an actor, and he attended RADA. He became a stagehand at the Royal Court Theatre, and appeared on stage in various plays from 1958. He had a small part in the 1958 film version of Look Back in Anger, directed by Tony Richardson, who had seen him on stage. He took a leading role in the 1961 film Flame in the Streets, playing the Jamaican boyfriend of the (white) daughter (played by Sylvia Syms) of a liberal working-class trades unionist (played by John Mills). He lived for a period in Paris, where he met his wife, Cecilia Enger.
He continued in British films during the 1960s, portraying stereotypical roles, such as a butler in the film Woman of Straw (1964), and in other films, such as East of Sudan (1964), Khartoum (1966) and The Last Safari (1967). He also appeared on television, in programmes such as Z-Cars, Dixon of Dock Green, Gideon's Way, Danger Man AKA Secret Agent Man, and a 1968 episode of The Avengers. In 1968, he also played the lead role in a West End production of Night of Fame. According to his obituary in The Times, this was the first time that a black actor had played a role written for a white man in English theatre. He was seen as a British equivalent to Sidney Poitier, and was frustrated that actors who started out at around the same time as him - such as Sean Connery, Terence Stamp, Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay and John Hurt - had become stars, and he had not.
Sekka eventually moved to the United States with the aim of getting better roles. He had a minor part in the films A Warm December (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974), both directed by Poitier. The first also featured Earl Cameron and the second Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. These roles led to a more memorable role in the sitcom Good Times, where he portrayed Ibe, Thelma's (BernNadette Stanis) African love interest. In 1976, he starred in the movie Mohammad, Messenger of God (also known as The Message) about the origin of Islam and the message of Muhammad, in which he played Muhammad's Ethiopian disciple Bilal al-Habashi. He appeared in the 1982 film Hanky Panky.
He was not cast in Roots (1977), being considered insufficiently American, but secured a role in the sequel, Roots: The Next Generations (1979), playing an African interpreter. Sekka is widely known among science fiction fans for his role as Dr. Benjamin Kyle in the television series Babylon 5's pilot movie, The Gathering (1993). Recurring health problems forced him to decline a future role in the series, and ultimately were the reason he retired from acting altogether.
- Johnny Sekka at the Internet Movie Database
- Obituary at Variety.com (subscription required)
- Obituary, The Independent, 29 September 2006
- Obituary, The Guardian, 29 September 2006
- Obituary, The Times, 5 October 2006