On this day twenty years ago, actor Kemal Sunal suffered a fatal heart attack as he boarded an early morning domestic flight from Istanbul to the Black Sea city of Trabzon. He was just 55 years old.
Sunal is said to have had a lifelong fear of flying and had not been on a plane for many years, but had been persuaded to fly to Trabzon, where he was due to start filming for a new movie Balalayka.
Tragically there was no doctor on board or nearby, and it took an ambulance over 20 minutes to reach the stationery aircraft, by which point he’d passed away.
Two decades on, Sunal retains a place in the hearts of the Turkish nation, and his body of work is as relevant today as then.
The actor starred in 82 films, mostly comedies, where he would often play a poor guy from rural Anatolia who was somewhat foolish, but with good intentions, trying to make it in the city.
Sunal was famed for the character Şaban. He was not particularly handsome, and his clumsy, naïve ways would generate laughs, but Şaban’s honesty would often see him trump those who would put him down and try to take advantage. The endearing character gave hope to many other Turks who saw themselves in Şaban at a time of huge social and political upheaval in Turkey.
During 1970s and 1980s, the country suffered from widespread violence between left and right-wing political factions, which was checked by a military coup in 1980. Few dared to challenge the establishment at the time, yet Sunal found a way to provide comic relief, while also making political and social points.
In his tribute to the actor in 2000, Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit said Kemal Sunal’s films “gave significant messages to society through humour,” while Sunal’s friend and long-time collaborator Halit Akçatepe said in 2017, “ [When] Kemal Sunal laughed, all of Turkey laughed. Although it’s been 18 years since he’s passed, Turkey has never forgotten him.”
The Istanbul-born actor had started his career on stage in 1964, debuting in the play Zoraki Tabip [‘Forced Medicine’] at Kenterler Theatre, where he was working. Sunal’s stage presence established him as a young actor with star potential and he soon had offers to appear in movies.
His first major role was in the film Tatlı Dillim [My Sweet Tongue, 1972], a romantic comedy starring the era’s two big heartthrobs, Tarık Akan and Filiz Akın. It was the first time Akçatepe appeared on screen with Sunal, and the two quickly formed a strong bond that would carry into multiple movies, including comedy classic Şaban Oğlu Şaban (1977), where they played a pair of blind beggars.
Tatlı Dillim was written and directed by legendary filmmaker Ertem Eğilmez, who went on to cast Sunal in many of his future projects, alongside other stellar names Şener Şen, Münir Özkul, Adile Naşit, and Ayşen Gruda.
Eğilmez penned and produced many of Turkey’s biggest box office hits in the 60s and 70s, and he struck gold with Sunal who went on to play leads in films such as Köyden İndim Şehire [From the Village to the City, 1974], Hababam Sınıfı [The Chaos Class, 1975], and Süt Kardeşler [Milk Brothers, 1976].
Among Sunal’s other notable characters were Tosun Paşa, a butler who poses as the governor-general of Ottoman-ruled Egypt, and Çöpçüler Kralı, who falls in love with a council official’s fiancée.
One of his final projects was Propaganda (1999), directed by Sinan Çetin, which had a harder political edge than his earlier work. Sunal played a customs official on the Syrian-Turkish border in the late 1940s, trying to navigate between two rival groups. Some believe the film was a comment on the artificial divisions between Turks and Kurds.
At the peak of his career, Sunal decided to finish university, which he had dropped out of to pursue acting. Despite his fame, he attended the university like a regular student, as he “preferred it that way.” The military coup meant another enforced break from his studies, but he finally got his degree in Radio, Television and Cinema Studies from Marmara University in 1995.
Three years later, Sunal graduated with a master’s degree from Marmara, with his thesis being on himself. His graduation grabbed the headlines: “İnek Şaban Master Yaptı” [Şaban the Geek got a master’s degree].
In its obituary of the actor, the New York Times wrote: “Mr. Sunal’s screen persona was bumbling and utterly unsophisticated. His ability to reach the hearts of ordinary people with simple humor [sic] led to comparisons with Jerry Lewis.”
In real life, Sunal had a far more serious demeanour. When asked about his personality in one of his final interviews, he said:
“It’s true [I’m serious], but it’s not in my hands, this is how I am made. Cinema is my profession. I change there, something else is happening there. I don’t actually like those who joke around too much. Because after a certain time it ends, people don’t laugh. It becomes forced. You should crack a joke when something beautiful comes to mind.”
Kemal Sunal, actor and comedian, was born on 11 November 1944; died 3 July 2000.