Paul Eilers: Actor-whisperer, with a heart of gold



STRAIGHT talker, Paul Eilers. Photo by Cornel van Heerden with kind permission.

SAY THE NAME “Paul Eilers”, and you may think of more than 40 years of audience applause. A versatile, well-loved, and highly skilled entertainer, Eilers passed away on 28 June 2019 of a heart attack. He was 74 years old.

The youngest of four children, Eilers was born on 5 November 1944 in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga. When he was still a boy his father died and the family moved to Kimberley. The theatre bug bit him young and hard: he was part of theatre in his last three years of highschool which would mark the start of the rest of his career.

After matriculating at Northern Cape Technical College and completing his formal education as an instructor at a police college, Eilers had a yen to study theology. But fate changed his path when he met Johan Fourie, a professional actor and director.  The die was cast: Eilers became part of Fourie’s roadshow, which brought shows to different parts of South Africa from 1964 until 1966. Under Fourie’s guidance, Eilers learnt the ropes of being a bus driver, a ticket clerk and a stage manager, and this was after he had found sufficient energy to perform two characters on stage.

In an interview in 2018 with the Afrikaans talk show, Kwêla, Eilers confessed that those were “tough but good times”, and clearly, they were times of immense growth for him. He was 28 in 1972 when he first set foot in the prestigious studios of the Johannesburg-based South African Broadcasting Corporation as a young director and radio host. The SABC was an important incubator for him, enabling mentorship by greats such as Gerhard Viviers, the great Springbok rugby commentator, and SABC veteran personality Nic Swanepoel. It was in this creative context that Eilers took Leon van Nierop, film critic and writer, under his wing.

Remembered by van Nierop for his interesting sense of humour and his teaching philosophy of tough love, Eilers notably encouraged artistic growth in the difficult field of the arts.

“Try and open other artistic doors and follow other avenues than simply being an announcer. Your talents go much wider than that,” van Nierop remembers Eilers’s instructions, noting that it was advice which Eilers also followed himself.

Associated in a diversity of roles with the SABC for 16 years, Eilers hosted the morning news programme alongside Cobus Robinson and Sarel Myburgh. During this time he received an award for his excellent direction of the Afrikaans drama Die Vroue van Troje, performed by Francois Swart and Anna Neethling-Pohl, in the 1980s at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.

But it was in his role of the villainous ‘Polka’ in the popular television-series Vyfster, directed by Gerhardt van der Berg, that brought Eilers’s name to the lips and hearts of millions of South Africans. The show was political commentary on life in and after imprisonment. Eilers reprised this role for the entire series in 1984 and the successive film in 1985.

In 2005, Eilers returned to the boards after an absence of more than 20 years. In the role of the autistic young man ‘Faan’ in Faan se Trein directed by Albert Maritz, he was acknowledged as the year’s best actor at the KKNK festival in Oudtshoorn.

Eilers’s career did not stop in front of the camera; he was also respected as a master director. It was in this capacity that he earned the nickname “actor-whisperer” for his exceptional ability to could communicate with actors on a deeper level. South African actor Paul Loots, was a child performer under the direction of Eilers on Roepman (Call Man) which was released in 2011. “I remember feeling like I was contributing to something bigger … this was largely due to the way in which Paul treated me as a professional actor”, he says, adding: “Paul stands as a testament to how dedication and hard work allows us to achieve the highest level of refinement in our craft.”

In 2012 Eilers directed the film Verraaiers (Traitors): a film remembered for shedding more light on South African history, the tribulations that had to be faced by white civilians and the difficult decisions that had to be taken by leaders during the South African War. Eilers was immensely proud of this particular project as he could bestow his pride for his own history.

Charlenè Brouwer worked with him in his 2013 film, Stuur Groete aan Mannetjies Roux, as continuity and script supervisor. She says will always remember ‘Uncle Paul’ for his voice and charisma. “For me he was like Al Pacino”, she says, “Uncle Paul also did not have time for lies and playing games. What you saw is what you got, and honesty was of utmost importance.”

South African actress Lizz Meiring described Eilers as “… never poisonous or petty, he was straight to the point, honest and without sentiment. Sardonic. But under that sardonic skin, a warm heart, great love and a wild, free spirit.”

Eilers’s wife, Marina, describes her husband as a man of sharp wit and undeniable talent: “Paul always had the wonderful gift of reciting lengths of prose and poetry without fault – from Shakespeare to Breyten Breytenbach”. Their son, Paul Jr, cites his father’s Latin motto: “Ut Prosim” (“That I may serve”).

  • Huibrecht de Hart is a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. She is part of the VIT 101 class, being taught the rudiments of arts writing by Robyn Sassen during 2020.

3 replies »

  1. Good article on his professional career. As one of many children from multiple earlier marriages he abandoned / ignored in his last decades, I would be curious to hear more about this “heart of gold”…

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