British-born actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje came late to screen acting and made his movie debut in Congo (1995). He has since appeared in The Mummy Returns (2001) and The Bourne Identity (2002), but he is best known as Simon Adebisi in the edgy HBO-TV prison drama Oz (1997-2000) and as “Mr. Eko” in ABC’s Lost (2004-). Despite his British accent, Akinnuoye-Agbaje often plays African characters and rarely appears on screen using his everyday voice. In 2005 he also appeared alongside Curtis Jackson “50 Cent” in the rapper’s debut movie,’ Get Rich or Die Trying’.
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was born on August 22, 1967, in London, England, to parents who had immigrated to the United Kingdom from Nigeria. At six weeks old he went to live with his foster parents in Nigeria and as a child he shared his time between Nigeria and London. He returned to London permanently at the age of 15 and later attended King’s College, University of London, funding his own way through college with modeling work.
He graduated with a Master’s degree in law and in 1992 was featured in several music videos, including “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” by En Vogue and “Love No Limit” by Mary J. Blige. Akinnuoye-Agbaje made his break into American TV in 1994, making brief appearances in episodes of Cracker and New York Undercover.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje speaks several languages, including Italian, Swahili, English, and Yoruba, his native tongue.
In the early 1990s Akinnuoye-Agbaje worked as a model and lived in Milan, Italy. After making the decision to become an actor he moved to Los Angeles in 1994, making his movie debut in 1995 in Congo. There he played a jungle guide, tapping into his African background; his performance helped establish a place for himself in the industry. He reprised the role in films such as Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995), and The Mummy Returns (2001). Despite being born in England, Akinnuoye-Agbaje has become known as an African actor, possibly because he has refused to adopt a Hollywood screen name. The website Nigeria Online, in an article celebrating his success, claims him for Nigeria: “Akinnuoye-Agbaje is the only actor in the Hollywood circuit from Africa’s most populous country yet.”
Although he runs the risk of being typecast as “the African,” Akinnuoye-Agbaje has managed to produce performances that are distinctive enough to allow his career to develop. He has starred in some of the most successful films of the early twenty-first century. The Mummy Returns was a major box-office success, grossing over $68 million on its opening weekend, while The Bourne Identity (2002), in which he played Wombosi, the target of one of the film’s many assassination plots, was one of the best spy thrillers of the year. Since then Akinnuoye-Agbaje has taken on roles in a more diverse range of films, including playing the male lead in the romantic comedy Mistress of Spices in 2005. In 2005 he also appeared alongside rapper 50 Cent in Get Rich or Die Tryin’; , a high-profile film, but one that seems unlikely to match the quality of his previous work despite what has been described as a “magnetic” performance.
By 2005 Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s movie career was well established and with a few exceptions his credits suggest an actor willing to take on new challenges. But despite his big screen success, it is in television that he has excelled. In 1997 he joined the cast of Oz, one of HBO-TV’s most successful and challenging shows of the 1990s. He stayed with the series for three years, playing the drug-addicted rapist and murderer Adebisi with such depth and sensitivity that he became one of its best-known and most sympathetic characters. For this role he received NAACP Award nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series and Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. In 2005 he starred in the second season of Lost, the first season of which averaged nearly 16 million viewers and was nominated for 12 Emmy awards. Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s character, the mysterious Mr. Eko, takes his “African” style in yet another direction.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje is a commanding presence on screen with strong features and a powerful physical build that enables him to play intimidating characters in a sensitive and intelligent way. Compelling performances in several films, notably in The Mummy Returns and The Bourne Identity, and on TV in Oz, have marked him out as an important and bankable talent.