The tiny Kalahari desert bushman known as N!xau, who charmed millions of cinema-goers worldwide in the 1980s with his exuberant performance in the box-office hit, The Gods Must Be Crazy, died near the place he was born in the remote Tsumkwe area of Namibia, south west Africa.
N!xau was thought to be about 59, but said he never knew his birthday. The odd spelling of his single name was used for his film work, and the exclamation mark substitutes for the clicking sound in his native tongue, Ungwatsi, that cannot be rendered in English. However, the English-language newspaper, The Namibian, spelt it Gcao, and added a surname, Coma.
The details of his death are unknown. He went into the bush to gather wood on July 1 but did not return. A family search found his body, but the police did not confirm his death until July 5. He had suffered from tuberculosis.
His unlikely fame derived from the remarkable success of The Gods Must Be Crazy, which played all over the world from 1981, and without pause for three years in the US from 1984. It made nearly $100m. It was a disarming comedy of errors about the unsettling consequences of an empty Coke bottle dropped from an airplane on a bush village. N!xau, as the tribesman Xixo, is told to throw the troublesome item off the edge of the world, but his journey involves him in hilarious contact with white civilisation.
A sequel was released in 1989, and he went on to an even stranger career in Hong Kong, making three action films before his movie career ended in 1994. By this time he had made enough money to build his family a brick house with electricity and piped water, and he also owned a car – but never learned to drive it.
Nobody who saw The Gods Must Be Crazy will forget his slapstick driving of an open Jeep. Its windscreen is down and the accelerator stuck, but N!xau jumps on the bonnet, grabs the wheel, and careers off facing backwards and driving wildly in reverse.
The film was written, directed and produced in Botswana by the late South African film maker Jamie Uys, who also appeared in it. He discovered his star in his ancestral village with his people, the San, living in huts and surviving on a few cultivated vegetables and cattle, without electricity and only scanty well water. N!xau was illiterate, although obviously very bright. He had previously seen only three white people, knew of no settlement larger than his village, and had no notions of modern society.
When he received his first wages of $300, he let the notes blow away because he did not associate paper money with value. But he learned fast, and demanded 600,000 rand for the sequel. Uys arranged for him to be given some cattle – the tribal capital – and drew up a trust fund.
Uys said that the bushman was a natural actor, but admitted that the white man’s ways had two corrupting influences on N!xau: he learned to drink alcohol and smoke.
He is survived by his wife Kora, four daughters and two sons.