Joe's turning point in career:
The 81st birth anniversary of the legendary actor falls on June 22
Highly versatile actor and legend of the Sri Lankan silver screen,
Joe Abeywickrama will turn 81 on June 22. He started off as a comic
actor before making a name for his portrayal of character roles.
Gammana Patabendige Don John Abeywickrama was born in Lellopitiya,
near Ratnapura, on June 22, 1927. His father was Don Darwin Abeywickrama
and his mother Udahagedara Manchanona. He was the eldest of four
Siribo Aiya in Sunil Ariyaratneâ€™s Siribo Aiya
The rural background of his childhood surroundings with the glimpse
of Adams' Peak and the values of the village folk had a great impact on
Joe's upbringing. He learnt to appreciate nature and hard work. As he
once stated, dialects and human expressions were not new to him as they
were a part of his everyday existence.
The village environment with its customs, rituals and lifestyles
acted as a university for the young lad to gain fundamental education in
life and filtered into the roles which he was to give life to in the
Goring Mudalali in D. B. Nihalsingheâ€™s Welikathara
Abeywickrama is a product of Sivali Central College, Ratnapura. He
entered the film world in the 1940s when he settled in Colombo to take
up work in Sirisena Wimalaweera's studio Nawajeewana.
Initially limited to doing office chores, Abeywickrama eventually
became involved in films screened in Ratnapura by the studio. He made
contacts with film industry insiders while with the studio, and on his
leave obtained a role in Devasundari in 1955.
The film was shot in Madras, India and it was dubbed in five
languages but it failed to create an impact but all was not lost for the
upcoming young artiste. He met T. Somasekaran during the shooting of his
first film and soon clinched a role in his upcoming film Saradama as an
eccentric police officer.
The film was released and proved to be a turning point in his career.
Due to his impressive presentation in his second movie he was in demand
as a comic actor.
The milestone in his career came when he was faced with a choice of
taking on a role quite different to the ones he had been offered so far,
the role of the stern Goring Mudalali in Dr. D. B. Nihalsinghe's
Welikathara both fascinated and frightened him as it was like taking a
gamble with success and failure. He finally took the plunge and the
success that followed was truly amazing. It was the beginning of an
extremely successful transformation from comedian to character roles.
Vannihamy in Prasanna Vithanageâ€™s Pura Handa Kaluwara
Filmgoers could never forget the memorable roles played by Joe in
films like M. Masthan's Allapu Gedara, Sunil Ariyaratne's Siribo Aiya,
Mahagama Sekera's Tun Man Handiya, Lester James Peries' Beddegama,
Dharmasena Pathiraja's Bambaru Avith, Prasanna Vithanage's Pura Handa
Kaluwara and several others. He had won many prestigious film awards.
Joe had also made his mark as a lyricist, scriptwriter and an author.
He had also contributed in portraying roles in a number of stage dramas
Reminisces of a milestone performance
There is no doubt that it is Welikathara, the award winning film by
veteran director, Dr. D. B. Nihalsinghe, which changed the course of Joe
Abeywickrama's career as an actor.
Though Joe was hesitant to take up the character offered to him,
Nihalsinghe placed his utmost confidence in the young actor's talent
when so many others had doubts and discouraging words to offer. The leap
from a comic role to the challenging endeavour of portraying Goring
Mudalali was not easy but it proved to be very fruitful.
"I was employed as a cinematographer during that period and Joe was
one of the actors included in the cast in one of my films, Para Walalu.
Sri Lankaâ€™s legendary actor, Joe Abeywickrama.
I was thinking of starting a production with Tissa Abeysekara when we
hit upon the story of Welikathara. Goring Mudalali's role derives from a
real-life individual whom I met while shooting Sathsamudura. I had not
decided on whom to portray the character but for some specific reason I
decided to ask Joe. He refused because he was making his ground as a
comedian. He felt that if he started on character acting he will lose
his main character skill," Dr. Nihalsinghe said.
It had taken a lot of persuasion to get Joe to agree and once he had
seen Abeysekara's script his confidence returned. He put his heart and
soul into the project and was greatly encouraged by the presence of
"It was an exceptional role for Gamini as well because he had carved
a niche for his heroic roles. The character he portrays in Walikathara
is the role of an anti-hero," Dr. Nihalsinghe pointed out adding that
the film had taken three years to complete.
Veteran director, Dr. D. B. Nihalsinghe. Picture by Palitha
"Films are shot out of sequence and this is not done according to the
chronological order of the narrative. It requests a huge amount of
professional discipline on the artiste's side as he or she should
remember continuity of the flow of incidents that follow the scenes.
For example in one sequence of scenes the arrival was shot at a
beautiful old Dutch building, in Galle while the entrance was shot at my
father's house in Bambalapitiya. The scene that follows these two is
shot in a room in Mt. Lavinia Hotel.
The actors need to keep the flow intact so that when the film is
edited the scenes fall into place," he said.
According to the veteran director the primary reason for choosing Joe
for the movie had been his innate skill of being able to take on any
type of role presented to him.
"He had a certain way about him as a person. He is a very versatile,
talented character actor, the best Sri Lanka had seen so far," he said
also adding that Joe did not realise how talented he was and this was
the reason why the international directors did not seek him out.
"While I was in Malaysia producing Malaysian films and I have come
across many actors of international class but there was one particular
actor who was fantastic but he did not know it. The same can be applied
Abeywickrama had also acted in Nihalsinghe's Maldeniye Simiyon in
which he had taken on the lead of a man with strong principles.
It had also proven to be an important character in his career. Having
worked with him in two major productions what kind of view did you
develop on Joe as a person?
"He is extremely humble and is continuously aware of his beginnings.
Though many years have passed since Walikathara took shape he still
remembers it as the turning point of his life."