As an actor of stage and screen, Jamie Bartlett blurred the lines of art and life, embedding a legendary character in the psyche of his audiences. And while his tombstone may refer to him as Bartlett, to millions of Africans across the continent, he was David Genaro, an on-screen deity who for years wowed them with his larger-than-life performances on television. He was a rare, dramatic heavyweight of the screen and nothing short of a national treasure.
Bartlett died of a heart attack on 23 May at the age of 55 at his home in Sophiatown, Johannesburg.
Bartlett embraced, popularised and immortalised Genaro, a character in the prime-time drama Rhythm City. The popular series ran for 14 years, rolling its last credits on 16 July 2021. Starring on the show for 13 years in more than 3 000 episodes, Bartlett breathed life into Genaro, a wicked puppet master who ran a successful radio station, 9-9FM, as well as the accompanying magazine 9-9 Mag.
In a Cape Talk radio interview with Eusebius McKaiser in July 2019, Bartlett acknowledged that it was difficult for him to get out of character as Genaro. “There is definitely a kind of madness and I have to work consciously on snapping out of him. My engagement with him is super quick. I know exactly where he lives and I know how his water lies and I am very quickly into his mercury in the morning,” he said.
In a first for the show, Bartlett was awarded best actor in a television drama at the South African Film and Television Awards in 2009. At the same time, his co-star and fierce on-screen rival Mduduzi Mabaso won best supporting actor.
After Bartlett’s death, Mabaso was among the many colleagues, friends and ordinary people who paid tribute. He tweeted that he could write “a beautiful book” about Bartlett, saying, “I will always miss Jamie, and I always respect him. I thank him for the craft, the wisdom, the talent, and how he respected his craft.”
The arc of his career
Bartlett was born on 9 July 1966 in Berkshire, England, to a British father and South African mother. His father loved diving and mountain climbing, so it is not surprising that the tightly knit family settled in South Africa.
In an interview published in The Sowetan in February, Bartlett recounted enjoying bike rides around Cape Town where he grew up, and loving “his mother and father dearly”. As a family they would often enjoy trips across the continent.
Bartlett attended St Stithians Boys College and Bryanston High School, both in Johannesburg, and Rondebosch High School in Cape Town. He dreamed of becoming a rugby player, and when he finished school, played in the Upington Under-19 team. He thought he would pursue it at the University of Cape Town, but then the arts came calling.
Bartlett trained in speech and drama at the university and later took on postgraduate studies at the Chrysalis Theatre Acting School in London. He married actress Camilla Waldman, who would later become known for her role in another iconic drama series, Generations. The couple had a son, Hector, but later divorced.
Alongside the screen, Bartlett acted in many plays at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. His professional career started in 1986 with Cock and Bull Story, in which Bartlett played a gay boxer. The role won him a Vita Award for most promising actor – a promise he heartily fulfilled. The actor would go on to appear in several other plays, including Death of a Colonialist, The Fire Raiser and East.
In 1997, he starred in The Sexy Girls, an action television drama about gangs in Cape Town that aired on M-Net. If Genaro is the lead character of Bartlett’s career, Mike O’Riley might be the supporting character. The actor played the role in the classic nightly soapie Isidingo, and was the first person to speak in the very first episode on 7 July 1998.
He guest starred in the South African-Canadian television series Jozi-H, a hospital drama set in Johannesburg, and was a judge on the popular reality show SA’s Got Talent.
Paying tribute, South African film producer Anant Singh said he worked with Bartlett for more than three decades, starting with the Iraq war-themed film Bravo Two Zero; followed by the Truth and Reconciliation film Red Dust, in which he played an apartheid-era security police officer; the thriller Prey; and the film Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. Singh said Bartlett was a role model to “young actors entering the world of film and television. His passing leaves a huge void in the industry and he will be missed by his peers.”
Equal education for an equal society
When Bartlett was off screen, he took time to give back by making grand entrances at classrooms around Johannesburg townships such as Katlego, Tembisa and Vosloorus. On seeing their hero, Genaro, the young people would explode into roars of excitement. In turn, and true to his style, he would give fiery talks, sparking the flames of their imaginations by sharing knowledge, experience, wisdom and love.
In 2021, sharing a post on his Instagram page following one of his visits, he said he felt honoured to be educating “these beautiful young souls”. He was excited to see their faces light up when he touched on subjects not part of the curriculum but nonetheless important.
“Until we get equality in education, we won’t have an equal society,” he said.
Many tributes, testimonies and obituaries poured in after his death, affirming what most already knew – Jamie Bartlett was beloved across race, generation and class. He was loved because he elevated acting on the small screen, connected with people, nourished sensibilities and enriched imaginations. He was affectionate and generous, and offered people a hand up. The many ordinary stories shared online offer a window into his immense character.
He is immortalised in rap. In 2016, Yung Swiss made the track David Genaro, accompanied by a remix, and a music video featuring the legend himself.
Cast in the image of Genaro and so much more, Jamie Bartlett will be remembered as someone who moved through the world with remarkable talent and even greater heart. He is survived by his partner Rosa Onious and son, Hector. He was laid to rest in a private funeral ceremony in Cape Town on 1 June.