Following a boyhood aspiration to become a pilot, dean of Turkish theater Nejat Uygur spent his life on the stage. Now he is delighting fans in a film.

“The most beautiful sound is neither the voice of a woman, nor the burble of water, nor the jingle of money. The most beautiful sound in the world is the beat of a propeller plane.” The writer of these words was known in his neighborhood as 'Pilot Nejat'. There was perhaps only one thing that could distract him from his passion to become a pilot. And that was another kind of work that he could love just as much: becoming a stage actor.

Uygur was born in 1927, when Turkey had a population of only 14 million and had just seen the first talkie in cinema history, when the Fenerbahçe Soccer Club celebrated its 20th year and Muhsin Ertuğrul was made head of the Istanbul City Theater. The second child of an army officer father and schoolteacher mother, Uygur was born in Kilis near the Syrian border. But even a regular home life does not guarantee a quiet childhood, and he found plenty of opportunity for mischief. When his dream of being a pilot peaked and he wasted yards of thin cloth and mosquito netting in his enthusiasm for building model airplanes, even his mother's rising voice was not enough to stop him. He even attempted to fly by jumping off a high place with a bedsheet as parachute. Nejat Uygur was the middle child of his family. Blending the gravitas of the eldest with the unruliness of the youngest, he struck a happy medium as a well-rounded middle child. Naughty yet sensitive, bratty yet single-minded, outwardly nonchalant yet never straying outside the family authority, he was always careful to walk the line. Years later when they began to mature, all three brothers would strive to rise to the top in whatever career they had chosen. While his younger brother opted for space science and his elder brother became a brain surgeon, both making important contributions through their scientific research, Nejat chose a profession in which the dramatic element was in the forefront, in which he would be in one-on-one contact with people and able to shape their feelings and pull them emotionally in the direction he wished. Going for the comedy side of it, he chose to make people laugh. And thus the Uygur family produced a space scientist, a medical scientist, and a 'scientist of the emotions'.

Beginning his studies in the Sculpture department of the Academy of Fine Arts, Uygur soon transferred to theater as his major. Like every young person starting out on the stage, he was eager for recognition and was in constant contact with people who could help him realize his dream. It was around that time that he met a person who would have a profound influence on his life: “I was walking from Büyükdere to Sarıyer one day when I ran into a beautiful girl walking a dog. 'I'd love to be that dog'… I said, just to make conversation…” The young girl was quite put off but, after Uygur's earnest attempts to break the ice, finally broke down and smiled. 'Love's a Many-splendored Thing' was showing in the movie theaters at the time, and soon its title tune, whistled by Nejat, became the signal for his girlfriend to step outdoors and walk the dog. Those innocent rendezvous  would go on for years, and the couple would eventually bring five children into the world, Süheyl, Süha, Ahmet, Kemal and Behzat. And that many-splendored love would always remain in the life of Necla and Nejat Uygur as the cornerstone of a union blessed with grandchildren.

Their life was spent on tour. Süheyl and Behzat, both of whom followed in their father's footsteps, were even born on tour. When every play in which they appeared was a bigger box office success than the last the entire team pulled together to take the theater to new locations. 'Hastane mi Kestane mi' and 'Cibali Karakolu' were perennial audience favorites. And when Turkey's private channels first started broadcasting, most of the plays that had brought the house down with laughter were also shown on TV where they again earned the highest ratings. Veteran actor and playwright Refik Erduran has dubbed Nejat Uygur, “a world-class genius of the surreal.” But beyond the opinions of the professionals, it was the interest of the audience and the standing ovations that convinced Uygur he  was on the right track. And he has never failed to point out in every interview that he derives his energy from his audience and their applause was all he ever needed.

The Nejat Uygur Theater has more than a few highly acclaimed plays under its belt. A past master at judging audience response, Uygur was a virtual mirror of the working class man who risks his all in the play, 'The National Lottery is My Last Chance'. And 'Dynasty', a comedy based on the relationship between two men, one an ordinary bloke, the other an aristocrat with credentials going back to the Ottoman palace, amuses with its comic contradictions. Changing costumes and identity in every new play, in 'Minti, Minti' Uygur played the role of a mentally ill man trying to pass himself off as a child to the people in the building where he has taken up residence. Thanks in part to his 'mignon'-like appearance perhaps, Uygur carried off the role of the child with conviction. Indeed there is hardly a role that man with the boyish build did not rise to over the years. And while he always made people laugh, there were times when the audience couldn't hold back the tears either. At the end of “The Soldier Who Grew Flowers in His Helmet”, for example, even who have been laughing uproariously from the start have a lump in their throats by the end. This is a process engendered naturally by the play's dramatic structure. For dramatic effect Uygur will occasionally create a deliberate emotional ebb and flow, for he is well aware that sudden fluctuations of feeling are what put people in touch with themselves and enable them, relatively speaking at least, to briefly suspend reality. So much so that he believes it is his responsibility to make it happen in real life as well. That is why he tries to bring theater to people in different venues, creating a stage for himself wherever he can, be it at a school or in a prison. Every venue he can transform into a stage brings him that much closer to people.

Uygur is so busy with the theater that he rarely has time to make a film. Following a handful of films in the 1970's, he finally appeared in 'Vizontele Tuuba'da Hacı Zübeyir' in 2004. Those who find him hilarious on stage were not disappointed by his performance on screen. While the film raised hopes that we might see Uygur more frequently on screen, he himself wasn't interested, as is evidenced by the fact that he stayed away from the cinema again until his most recent appearance in 'White Angel'. A 2007 production and Mahsun Kırmızıgül's first attempt at directing, 'White Angel' is a film in which Uygur plays a Korean War vet. “This film was very important for me,” he says. “I really liked the script and it was great working with the cast. The director who asked me to be in the film is like a son to me anyway. It was great working with him…”
Impatiently awaited by cinema buffs, 'White Angel', is coming to theaters on 16 November. Expectations are that it will be much talked about for its music as well.

While eagerly awaiting the film gala, actor Nejat Uygur was suddenly taken ill last month and rushed to hospital. As his condition continues to improve, Uygur has turned his hospital room into a stage where he quells his longing for the theater by drawing every visitor into a play in progress. It looks as if he'll be keeping us in stitches for a long time to come. And that's what we're all hoping from the bottom of our hearts.

We would like to thank Beşiktaş Cultural Center and TÜRVAK.