By Paula Chin and David Hutchings
Updated October 10, 1988 12:00 PM

As the glittering lights of Manhattan skyscrapers twinkled in the distance, John Omirah Miluwi looked down from his descending jetliner and knew he was about to embark on another adventure. Fresh from the wilds of his native Africa, Miluwi had never seen such a large city. In fact, he had never before flown in an airplane, never seen a movie, never used a telephone. But he had recently had an education in strange people and their customs. Just last year he had been plucked from his life as a member of a mountain rescue team on the treacherous peaks of 17,000-foot Mount Kenya and plunked into the cast of Gorillas In the Mist. In Gorillas, the new movie about the life of murdered primate researcher Dian Fossey, Miluwi plays Sembegare, the trusty tracker who guides star Sigourney Weaver through the jungles of Rwanda. Now, all alone and with $100 in his pocket, he was arriving for the Gorillas premiere. As the wheels touched down in New York, Miluwi could hardly have surmised that he was entering a much more bizarre jungle.

After three days’ traveling, John was exhausted, and the 5 a.m. landing at brightly lit Kennedy Airport was positively baffling. “There were lights, but it was dark,” says Miluwi. “I wondered if it was day or night.” Because he was a day late in arriving, his greeting party had long gone. So John set out for Manhattan—about 15 miles of vicious highway—on foot. “A car almost hit me, and I said, ‘What wrong with this? They want to hit me for nothing?’ ”

A policeman helped him get a taxi, and Miluwi set off again. “He was smoking so heavy, riding so fast. He told me time is money,” says Miluwi. The cabbie dropped him at the Park Avenue residence of Gorillas producer Arnold Glimcher. No one was home. The doorman thought the visitor was one of the homeless. “He no want to listen to me. I explain I’m from Kenya, here is my papers, and I start to sit down and rest,” John remembers. “He tell me this is no place for sitting. ‘God, is this how people live in this country?’ I thought. ‘God, what should I do here?’ ” Miluwi tried unsuccessfully to cajole the befuddled doorman into letting him sleep in the hall. “But he tell me this is the place of rich people,” says Miluwi. “I can’t sleep on the rug—which looked very comfortable to me.” Finally, John says, “I saw a mama [married woman] step in. I don’t want to spoil the Universal of Pictures people for their movie, but I tell the mama I am very, very hungry. She bring me tea and biscuits and let me use her phone.” Still no luck: “Everyone I called was a recording. Aren’t there any people here?” Through the Kenyan consulate, Miluwi eventually found lodging with a Kenyan relative for two nights before being resettled, courtesy of Universal Studios, in a swank mid-town hotel. “I was told only presidents stay there,” Miluwi recalls. “Maybe they thought I was one.”

After his initial mishaps, Miluwi sampled luxury, Manhattan style: four-star meals, room service, limo rides and late, late nights. Gorillas co-star Bryan Brown took John barhopping—Trixie’s, Elaine’s. “Bryan said I should go see the ladies—not to get them but just look,” John says. The evening had a price: two terrific hangovers, which Miluwi and Brown endured through a flurry of interviews the following day.

Miluwi, who turns in a riveting performance in Gorillas as Sigourney’s guide and emotional mainstay, already was wise to the ways of movie folk. “He held his ground with Sigourney, and that’s not easy,” says director Michael Apted. “He was never overawed.”

Except, perhaps, by his dizzying ascent from mountaineer to movie star. Now in his mid-30s (he’s unsure of his exact age but believes he was born in the spring “because my mother says it was raining”), John had spent 17 years in the Mount Kenya rescue service when Apted chose him for the movie. “I didn’t want to import actors for the African roles [because] they had a kind of urbanization I didn’t want,” says the director. “I needed dignity and simplicity, and that is what John had.”

Location shooting in Rwanda provided a new set of challenges for Miluwi. He learned about Fossey’s work and broadened his tracking knowledge; there are no mountain gorillas in Kenya. Memorizing his lines was easy for him, but learning Hollywood jargon took some getting used to. At first, when Miluwi heard “Action!” he would jump in panic, thinking something was happening behind him. But his most formidable task was working with Weaver. “I was afraid of Sigourney,” he says. “I thought she was a queen because she wasn’t carrying big bags of equipment like everybody else.” After a few weeks of filming, however, the awe gave way to admiration. “She made me feel free,” says John. “I respect her a lot.”

Miluwi has spent most of his life surmounting obstacles. He was born on the sparsely populated Mfangano-Wakula Island in Lake Victoria, off Kenya’s western border, to a family that barely scraped by on the father’s income as a fisherman. Miluwi saw seven of his 13 siblings die in their youth. During his late teens, he moved to a central province—24 hours away from home by bus and motorboat—to work in a hotel as a bartender and later as a farm laborer. There he first saw the magnificent snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya looming in the distance. Fascinated by the mountain, Miluwi eventually got a job cutting trees with the mountain’s park service. “I went to look for employment in a tie and shirt,” he says. “They gave me a spade, a fork and a machete, and I found myself digging ditches.” He soon became a member of the rescue team and quickly distinguished himself, saving many lives and becoming the group’s star climber. Life in a primitive stone hut at the chilling altitude of 8,000 feet was grueling. “You don’t sleep, because there is no oxygen,” he says. “You have to plan how much food to have. Most use pills to sleep, and the altitude gives headaches, but I feel good because I feel free. You are struggling with your own body up there. No one bothers with you. Everyone sits with their head down, thinking their own words as the clouds roll down and up.”

In 1973 John took a wife, Eunice Atieno, whom he’d known as a child. “She is a good lady, a hard-working lady, and we married,” he says. Nine years later, when witch doctors and physicians concluded that she was infertile, he took another spouse, with Eunice’s blessing. “We knew from the beginning that it would be hard and there could be jealousy,” Miluwi says. “But it is okay. I fell in love again with Esther.” He now has three children—son Bob Otieno, 8, daughters Morlin Aluoch, 6, and Helen Achieng, 3. His wives lived in adjoining huts, John divided his time evenly between them, and the family took meals together.

Now back with his family on a small farm near Nairobi—with a house for each wife—John is not particularly eager to do another film unless it “sends a message to the world that Africa needs to be protected—not just gorillas, but everything.” He continues to visit his beloved Mount Kenya, where he occasionally serves as a guide. “People thought I made so much money from the movie to run away from the mountain,” Miluwi says with a smile. “But my heart is still going back there.”

—By Paula Chin, with David Hutchings in New York