Leon Schuster Biography
Leon Ernest “Schuks” Schuster (born May 21, 1951) is a South African filmmaker, comedian, actor, presenter and singer.
He is South Africa’s foremost prankster and the mastermind behind the phenomenally successful comedy feature, “Mr Bones” and “Schuks Tshabalala’s Survival Guide to South Africa 2010“. Leon was drawn to the filmmaking process at an early age and fondly recalls how, as children he and his brother would play practical jokes on his family and film their escapades with an old home movie camera.
After studying for a BA degree at the University of the Orange Free State, Leon spent two years teaching at a high school in Bloemfontein before joining the South African Broadcasting Corporation in 1975. During his time at the SABC, Leon created the hit Afrikaans radio series ‘Vrypostige Mikrofoon’ – where he would disguise his voice and take the mickey out of unsuspecting victims.
In 1982, Leon was approached by Decibel Records to compile a series of sports songs and his first record, ‘Leon Schuster’ sold 100 000 units. His second album ‘Broekskeur’ sold in excess of 40 000 units and this was followed by ‘Briekdans and Leon Schuster – 20 Treffers’ which sold in excess of 270 000 copies.
His hit CD ‘Hier Kom Die Bokke’ garnered an FNB Sama Music Award for Biggest Selling CD of 1995. His following CD, the acclaimed ‘Gatvol in Paradise’ sold in more than 125 000 units and gave rise to the unofficial Gauteng anthem, ‘Gautengeling’.
Schuster the well loved comedian became Schuster the South African Comedy Legend with his foray into film. His first feature, ‘You Must be Joking’ produced in collaboration with Johan Scholtz and Elmo de Witt became an instant hit with South African audiences and it gave rise to the equally successful sequel ‘You Must be Joking Too’.
Having captured a massive and very loyal audience with his slap-stick brand of comedy, Schuster produced a string of films that hit the mark with his adoring public. These included ‘O Schucks, it’s Schuster’, ‘O Schucks, Here Comes Untag’, ‘There’s a Zulu on My Stoep’ (released internationally as ‘Yankee Zulu’), ‘Short and Sweet’ and ‘Panic Mechanic’. ‘Yankee Zulu’ became a mega-hit in Germany where it became the biggest box office earner after the Bruce Willis vehicle, ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’. Following ‘There’s a Zulu On My Stoep’ was ‘The Millennium Menace’ which was initially filmed as a series of candid camera television inserts. This became an instant hit with viewers and created such a hysterically funny reaction at a private screening that it was released at cinemas.
The highly successful ‘Mr Bones’ marked a departure from Schuster’s candid camera formula and was a sophisticated film that remained true to the Schuster formula, with classic slapstick elements. The film emerged as the most successful Schuster film of all time, earning more that R33 million at the South African box office.
In 2004, Schuster was back with the hilarious film ‘Gatvol’ which looked at the funny side of people emigrating to Australia with the added twist of Schuster being stalked by a fictional despot, Samoosa Woestyn. The film saw Leon once again teaming up with Alfred Ntombela in the film.
Mama Jack saw Schuster regroup with the team that made Mr Bones – director, Gray Hofmeyr and producers Anant Singh and Helena Spring. The film tracks Jack Theron, who works on a movie set as a grip. His movie producer boss hates Jack and in a bid to get rid of him, the producer spikes his drink at a glamorous function, and before long Jack has unwittingly offended all the attending dignitaries, ruined the function and got himself on the wrong side of the law. Now, on the run and desperate, Jack turns to his friend, Shorty, a make-up artist for help, and emerges disguised as a black woman, Mama Jack.
Little is known about his personal and family life, though Leon has mentioned, through public interviews, that he is divorced with four children of which one is pregnant with his first grandchild.
Something many people may not know is that Leon Schuster is an ardent Cheetahs supporter and is passionate about rugby. So much so that his new album includes the latest theme song for his favourite team. In fact, this boytjie from Bloem was an aspiring rugby hero in his heyday and this is how the fun and games started – when he was at varsity in the Free State, and his nickname was ‘the fastest foot in the West’.
He was playing for the university’s pride team on an overseas tour just before the international sports ban gripped the country. ‘We bussed around Europe so we had hours to kill. I used to take the microphone and make up songs, rip the guys off and generally entertain the team,’ he says. He chose to study a BA in languages because his brother chided that only ‘moffies’ studied drama. He had a good relationship with the drama department though and used to get involved in productions on the sly.
‘Ouboet had spoken… I couldn’t go ahead and take up drama studies but when the lecturer approached me to get involved in skits, I did it skelmpies,’ he says. However, his mother was his biggest influence as she was always playing practical jokes on the family. ‘She’s 85 and still has a fantastic sense of humour!’
He always knew he wanted to be involved in making movies… and he loved sport. So his ideal job, then, was to become a sports commentator. His role model was Afrikaans rugby commentator Gerhard Viviers and when Leon imitated him at his SABC audition, he failed the test because he was too much like his sports hero!
But he joined the SABC as a presenter and started hosting a radio show called Vrypostige Mikrofoon. This is where he put his comical persona on the map and where his career as a prankster kicked off. ‘Those were serious political years,’ he remembers. ‘So I would provide some relief and upliftment by disguising my voice and posing a dilemma each week.’
It was hard work to come up with eight or nine skits every Wednesday night but the show was such a hit, it ran for six years. By then Leon was approached with so many opportunities outside the SABC that he was enticed to go solo and start his own one-man show.
He toured the country and those were the days, he says, when he just did it for the love of it, without ‘fear or hang-ups’. It was only when he started making movies that it became more of a job and there was a bit more at stake. He’s been described as a barometer of the national mood, and he agrees with this, saying the public has changed along with the political changes. ‘People have become more fearful, aggressive and less approachable than 10 years ago.’
He tells the story about when he posed as a scruffy vagrant who washed cars with dirty water at a petrol station. The public saw only the funny side in the movie but when he was filming the scene, he says one guy just walked straight up to him and smacked him. ‘It’s getting very tense and although people want me to carry on with the sketches, I am wary of getting hurt or shot. At 55 I am getting a bit too old for this!’
He finds the scriptwriting part of movie making the most challenging. ‘A script is a control thing and often what I want is something that needs to be acted out instead of scripted. It’s also the loneliest job in the world, he says, and he takes his job seriously. ‘I like to think I take people on an emotional ride they have to laugh but there has to be a sense of drama and action too.’
His audience has also changed a bit with the times – he now has the challenge of having to please all South Africans. His movies have always been loved by people of all ages, and today he also has a growing black audience. They love stories they can relate to like black against white, stories about taxi drivers… I had a great reaction from movies like Mr Bones and Mama Jack.’ And what does he say about negative criticism? ‘I’ve been around long enough to realise that critics write for their tjommies and they want arty-farty subject matter. As far as ratings go, a fart movie blows an art movie down the wind… Critics don’t affect the box office – word of mouth has the biggest impact.’
He lashes out against piracy as he lost about R10-million on Mama Jack because the pirated copy came out seven weeks before the movie. ‘They should be behind bars as they are taking the food from our mouths. Leon says he’s become interested in property, having been wowed by the Simbithi eco estate development near Ballito on the KwaZulu-Natal northern coastline. ‘I called the éLan MD Mark Taylor about buying a stand and that is how we became friends.’
He’s invested in a large modern house in a secure complex in the West Rand but longs to live at the coast, go fishing and have a haven in which to write. Ultimately, he dreams of owning his own unspoilt piece of land on the ocean and claims the worst property decision he ever made was after his divorce when he sold his beach cottage at Brenton-on-Sea. ‘It was before the Knysna boom and I sold it for next to nothing. Friends who hung onto their cottage were recently offered R4-million!’