PROFILE – Kemal Sunal: 'Naive' actor of Turkish comedy

By Erdogan Cagatay Zontur

ANKARA (AA) – Turkey on Wednesday commemorated the 19th anniversary of the passing of legendary comedian Kemal Sunal.

Sunal was known for his slapstick comedy and the characters he portrayed in films, who bordered on naivete. One of the main reasons Sunal was loved by cinema audiences is that the films provided a commentary on sociological, socioeconomic, and political developments of the 1970s and '80s.

Although Sunal was known as “the laughing man,” in a 1985 interview he described himself as “a cold man, talking to very few people,” adding that he liked order in his business and social life.

– Early life

Sunal was born on Nov. 11, 1944 in Istanbul. He took a long time to complete his schooling, taking fully 11 years to get his high school diploma.

“It was not due to stupidity or laziness,” he said, recalling his student years in the interview. “It was some kind of mischief.”

Following the military coup of Sept. 12, 1980, Sunal abandoned his journalism studies at Marmara University.

– Career

Sunal’s acting career began in high school with the play Zoraki Tabip (Unwilling Doctor). He was chosen as best actor in an inter-high school theater competition.

His professional career began at the Kenter Theater when his teacher, Belkis Balkir, introduced him to renowned stage actor Musfik Kenter.

He later performed at various venues in Istanbul, including the Devekusu Cabaret Theater.

“I don't know how, but I found myself in a real scene among the audience,” Sunal said about his early years as a thespian, as recounted in Nuran Turan's book Kemal Sunal's Early Years.

“I was on stage for three minutes or so. I don't remember what I did, but the audience was laughing.

“As you know, I have loved making people laugh since those days.”

While Sunal was performing in Dun Bugun Oyunundan Direklerarasi, he was introduced to movie director Ertem Egilmez, who offered him a role in the 1972 film Tatli Dillim (Sweet Talker), thus sparking his movie career.

“The day the film opened, I sat down in the back row of the theater. I only appeared onscreen eight times,” Sunal recalled.

“When the audience saw my face, they started applauding and laughing…Then I leaned back and said: ‘This is (success)’.”

He won recognition in many popular movies, including Canim Kardesim (My Dear Brother, 1973), Koyden Indim Sehire (From The Village to The City, 1974) and Mavi Boncuk (The Blue Bead, 1974) .

Egilmez gave Sunal a part in Hababam Sinifi (The Chaos Class, 1975), an adaptation of a novel by Turkish writer Rifat Ilgaz that led to many sequels. This time, Sunal had much more screen time.

Sunal married Gul Sunal in 1974 and the couple had two children, Ali and Ezo.

– A life full of films

Popular comedies Sut Kardesler (Foster Brothers, 1976), Sakar Sakir (Clumsy Sakir, 1976), Tosun Pasa (Tosun Pasha, 1976) and Copculer Krali (The King of The Street Cleaners, 1978) cemented Sunal’s place in the film industry.

Sunal received Best Actor awards for his leading role in Kapicilar Krali (King of The Doormen, 1977) at the prestigious Antalya Film Festival and by the Motion Picture Authors Association (SIYAD).

In the 1985 interview, Sunal said it was the first time in Turkey that a comedian had received an award.

He also got the Best Actor award at the Ankara Film Festival for his role in Dutturu Dunya (Queer World) in 1989 and the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1998 Antalya Film Festival.

Sunal also appeared in some political dramas, including 1999's Propaganda, his final film. However, he always avoided polarizing audiences.

– An actor and a scholar

In 1995 Sunal graduated with a B.A. from the Radio, Television and Cinema Department at Marmara University and then began studying for his master's.

“I finished a four-year marathon in 27 years,” Sunal joked in his graduation ceremony address at Marmara University.

“Turkey needs people who always read. That’s why I keep reading.”

His master's thesis was a study of his own works, which included 82 films. Sunal’s family later published his thesis under the title Kemal Sunal's Comedy in Television and Cinema.

On July 3, 2000, while on a plane, the famed actor died suddenly of a heart attack, age 56. He was on his way to Turkey’s Black Sea province of Trabzon to start shooting his 83rd film, Balalayka (Balalaika).

Sunal was laid to rest in Zincirlikuyu Cemetery in Istanbul.