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David Gulpilil, the beloved Indigenous Australian actor who introduced the world to his culture in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and went on to make his mark in the blockbuster Crocodile Dundee and in the Rolf de Heer dramas The Tracker and Charlie’s Country, has died. He was 68.
Gulpilil was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017, and his death was announced Monday in a statement by South Australian Premier Steven Marshall. “It is with deep sadness that I share with the people of South Australia the passing of an iconic, once-in-a-generation artist who shaped the history of Australian film and Aboriginal representation on screen — David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu (AM),” he said.
His emotional and humanistic portrayals in Mad Dog Morgan, Storm Boy and The Last Wave, all three released in 1976-77, ran parallel with the resurgence of the Australian film industry now known as the “New Wave.”
Gulpilil later received praise — and a best supporting actor nomination from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards — for his turn as a tracker pursuing three children who escape government-enforced servitude in Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002).
Also in 2002, he landed his first lead actor award in de Heer’s haunting The Tracker, playing the title character who is pushed by a racist cop to locate the murderer of a white woman. Gulpilil would call it the best performance of his career.
His collaboration with de Heer continued when he narrated the landmark Ten Canoes (2006), filmed in the Aboriginal language, and co-wrote and starred as an aging man wanting to retreat to his cultural roots in Charlie’s Country (2013).
The impetus for Charlie’s Country came during a low point in Gulpilil’s life, when he was behind bars for aggravated assault.
During a prison visit, de Heer said he was shocked at the condition of his former film star, and the two began working through projects that could motivate Gulpilil with a sense of purpose upon his release.
In his Cannes Film Festival review, THR‘s David Rooney called Charlie’s Country “a delicate but powerful film that functions as both a stinging depiction of marginalization and as a salute to the career of the remarkable actor who inhabits almost every frame.”
Gulpilil won the Un Certain Regard best actor prize at Cannes as well as a second AACTA award for his performance.
The actor also had a memorable supporting role in The Proposition (2005), and he portrayed tribal elders in Baz Luhrmann’s romantic epic Australia (2008), the third-highest-grossing Australian film of all time, and Satellite Boy (2012). His last appearance on film was the emotional 2021 documentary My Name Is Gulpilil.
Gulpilil also appeared in Crocodile Dundee (1986), Australia’s top-grossing movie, as Neville Bell, an Indigenous Australian who meets Paul Hogan’s Mick Dundee on his way to a corrobboree, or meeting.
His character shows off a dry sense of humor, rarely afforded to Indigenous roles. When Bell tells journalist Sue Charlton (played by Hogan’s future wife, Linda Kozlowski) that she can’t take his photograph, she apologizes: “I’m sorry — you believe it will take your spirit away?” He replies, “No, you’ve got the lens cap on.”
Born in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, on July 1, 1953, Gulpilil was raised in the bush and never went to school. He learned the English language solely by listening.
“That’s all I know, dancing, singing, spear-throwing and hunting,” he recalled in a 2015 interview. “My father gave me a spear and said make sure you come back, the spear is life.”
British director Roeg saw Gulpilil performing a traditional ceremonial dance as he scouted locations for Walkabout (1971). He approached him and asked for his name, but all the 16-year-old could reply was, ‘Yes.'”
For years before Gulpilil’s screen debut, Indigenous Australians weren’t counted in the national census, and their rights were abridged by state and federal laws. This discrimination was banned with a 1967 referendum vote.
Walkabout told the story of two white schoolchildren lost in the Australian Outback who are saved by Gulpilil’s character. His stirring performance culminates in a mesmerising courtship dance and makes for one of the great film debuts of all time.
Veteran actor Jack Thompson, who would later work alongside Gulpilil in Mad Dog Morgan and Australia, said it was the first time he had seen the Indigenous culture presented on-screen as “dynamically attractive.”
“No Australian director would have done that,” he said. “It would not have until then been culturally possible for us to think of an Aboriginal young man as being sexually attractive.”
Previously, representation of Indigenous Australians on the big screen was virtually nonexistent, with the occasional portrayal in offensive “black face” an example of the country’s inability to reconcile its true history.
As the industry began a resurgence in the 1970s, Gulpilil appeared in Mad Dog Morgan, befriending the erratic real-life bushranger played by Dennis Hopper, and in the children’s classic Storm Boy, also released in 1976, he was Fingerbone Bill, who helps a boy raise an orphaned pelican. (He made a cameo in the 2019 remake as the father of his original screen character.)
Said de Heer, “David’s early performances made writers and producers and directors believe it was possible to have great Aboriginal characters of interest to broad audiences.”
In 1977, director Peter Weir, who had just completed the instant Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, began work on another mystical film, The Last Wave. It starred Richard Chamberlain as a lawyer drawn into a world of murder and premonitions and Gulpilil as a murder suspect.
Gulpilil had a profound effect on the director when they first met, Weir recalled during a 1979 installment of the TV show This Is Your Life.
“As I was leaving and got in my old car, you leaned in through the window and said to me, ‘I’ve told you very special things, Peter, just for you,'” he said. “‘And just remember, as you drive away, my shadow will be beside you in the car.’ And I remember driving off and looking at the passenger seat.”
When Gulpilil, then 26, was asked later in the show what he hoped to accomplish with his life, his voice cracked with emotion.
“I want to do something not only for me, but I’m doing it for Australia and for my people and for our culture. … I’m doing it for Black and white to know better that we have culture and history still existent, and I’ll keep trying.”
Gulpilil danced for Queen Elizabeth at the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973 and was appointed a member of the Order of Australia in 1987.
He also starred onstage in the autobiographical Gulpilil and received the Red Ochre Award for outstanding contribution to the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders arts. A charcoal portrait of him by Craig Ruddy won the nation’s 2004 Archibald Prize.
In July 2019, Gulpilil received the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee lifetime achievement award and in a prerecorded message announced he was battling lung cancer.
“To everyone, thank you for watching me. … Never forget me while I am here,” he said. “I will never forget you. I will still remember you, even though it won’t go on forever. I will still remember.”
In accordance with Indigenous culture, David Gulpilil’s name and image have been reproduced with his family’s consent.
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