CityLife Arts

Legendary South African casting director Moonyeenn Lee succumbs to coronavirus

By Edward Tsumele

Legendary casting director and actors’ agent Moonyeenn Lee is dead. She passed on on Saturday due to COVID-19-related complications. Information surrounding the circumstances of her illness and death is still sketchy. But what is not sketchy is the void she has leftbehind in the film, TV and television industry in the country.

Lee was more than just an agent to many an actor both on local productions and international films, as she also mentored many of them. Her role on the local television and film industry was so monumental that If an actor did not belong to Lee Productions, they felt that they had not yet arrived.

Yet Lee was so eccentric to an extent that not much was known about her private life beyond the faces she put on mainstream culture in the country in TV, and film, particularly black talent.

That not much is known about her beyond that of a casting agent who placed particularly black bodies as actors in almost every mainstream production, whether an international or a local production still, remains a mystery on its own.

Lee was not only revered in the local TV and film industry, but regarded as the ultimate destination for many an actor who wanted to be taken seriously. The casting director and agent ironically kept a very low profile on the local entertainment industry, but was the main brains behind the success of almost every single actor on local TV soapies and international films looking for local talent.

Her demise has therefore left many hearts broken and many an actor without a mother figure to turn to when the situation turns tough. In an industry known for exploitation and meanness, not a single word negative was said about her during her life time.

If anything man an actor on TV and international films have a good word about her role. Whether it was role in the Oscar awatrding winning movie Tsotsi or the Mandela movie, Lee played a crucial role in placing South African actors there.

A statement released by her agency over the weekend read: “It is with great sadness that we announce the death of the legendary South African casting director and agent, Moonyeenn Lee. She passed away on Saturday morning, 18th of July 2020 in Johannesburg. Her death was due to complications caused by the coronavirus.”

 Her 47 years in the film industry earned her a formidable reputation. In 2003 Moonyeenn was nominated to the National Executive Committee of the Independent Producer’s Organisation and to the Film Board of Create South Africa. In the same year, she formed Khulisa Productions to make South African films. The first film produced by Khulisa was Promised Land.

Moonyeenn’s passion for South African stories and local talent was well known. Over the years, she would travel around the world introducing producers and directors to South African actors. She would always do everything in her power to convince them to rather cast local actors over foreign actors.

Her dedication eventually paid off as many international productions trusted her to cast locally. She was renowned as one of South Africa’s leading agents and represented some of South Africa’s best-known actors through her company, Moonyeenn Lee & Associates (MLA). She cared deeply for actors and was a fearless defender of their rights.

Work was central in her life. Her actors were her family. The directors and producers she worked with were all her friends. She was brutally honest, a bit too much for some, but she believed in saying things as they are.

Her quick wit, her wicked sense of humour and deep understanding of her craft made her interesting company. Her family and friends will remember her for her generosity and kindness to those in need, for her fighting spirit as well as for her unwavering commitment to the local industry.

She received the Lionel Ngakane Lifetime Achievement Award from the South African Film & Television Awards in 2017. A highlight in her illustrious career was when she became the first South African member of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes for the Oscars and the Television Academy, which votes for the Emmys.

She managed the casting of films such as The Bang Bang Club, Disgrace, the Oscar-winning Tsotsi, Fanie Fourie’s Lobola, the Oscar-nominated Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, Hotel Rwanda and Blood Diamond; the Oscar-shortlisted Black Panther and Life, Above All; the Golden Globe nominees Machine Gun Preacher and Mandela and De Klerk; and Emmy-winning series like Homeland, as well as nominees like The Prisoner and No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, among others. Moonyeenn was nominated for two Emmy Awards for The Looming Tower and Roots.

Moonyeenn helped shape the lives of many actors, directors and writers through her fierce honesty and passion. The South African film industry has lost an icon and a formidable champion of the arts. She will be sorely missed by us all.

 Lee & Associates (MLA). She cared deeply for actors and was a fearless defender of their rights.

Work was central in her life. Her actors were her family. The directors and producers she worked with were all her friends. She was brutally honest, a bit too much for some, but she believed in saying things as they are. Her quick wit, her wicked sense of humour and deep understanding of her craft made her interesting company. Her family and friends will remember her for her generosity and kindness to those in need, for her fighting spirit as well as for her unwavering commitment to the local industry.

She received the Lionel Ngakane Lifetime Achievement Award from the South African Film & Television Awards in 2017. A highlight in her illustrious career was when she became the first South African member of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes for the Oscars and the Television Academy, which votes for the Emmys.

She managed the casting of films such as The Bang Bang Club, Disgrace, the Oscar-winning Tsotsi, Fanie Fourie’s Lobola, the Oscar-nominated Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, Hotel Rwanda and Blood Diamond; the Oscar-shortlisted Black Panther and Life, Above All; the Golden Globe nominees Machine Gun Preacher and Mandela and De Klerk; and Emmy-winning series like Homeland, as well as nominees like The Prisoner and No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, among others. Moonyeenn was nominated for two Emmy Awards for The Looming Tower and Roots.

Moonyeenn helped shape the lives of many actors, directors and writers through her fierce honesty and passion. The South African film industry has lost an icon and a formidable champion of the arts. She will be sorely missed by us all.

She is survived by her daughter, Cindy Lee, her son, David Lee and her pets, Hitchcock, Eva and Spice.

Please share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *