Bill Collins, Australia's Beloved 'Mr. Movies,' Dies at 84

Courtesy of Foxtel
Bill Collins

He passionately presented movies to TV viewers for 55 years across five networks.

Bill Collins, the ebullient Australian film presenter and host of The Golden Years of Hollywood whose television career spanned more than a half-century, has died. He was 84.

Collins died peacefully in his sleep Thursday night in Sydney, his wife of 36 years, Joan, announced.

"Bill's love of film was encouraged by you, his audience, and his love of sharing his passion increased over the five decades that he presented on every Australian television," she said in a statement.

Nicknamed "Mr. Movies" for his unrivaled knowledge, he would sit behind a desk wearing his trademark black-rimmed glasses, dressed in suit and tie, lavishing praise on the feature he was about to present — all in one take, and without a teleprompter.

Generations tuned in for a weekday afternoon movie or a Saturday night screening to watch Collins' opening remarks oscillate between seriousness and exhilaration, but never fall into fawning.

"This film has tremendous emotional impact, and I think you're going to fall in love and want to see it again and again," he said of the World War II epic Since You Went Away (1944), starring Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten.

"Joan and Fred take on the Nazis and along with that, they do a duet as well. I think you'll love it," was how he introduced the Crawford-MacMurray spy thriller Above Suspicion (1943).

When he screened the unsettling Aussie outback film Wake in Fright (1971) in 1989, he received hate mail. But his on-air response was Collins-esque, passionate, uninhibited and forthright.

"Yes, some of it is disgusting perhaps, some of it is absolutely horrifying, but it's real, it's true, it's Australiana, the other side of the coin," he said. "And incidentally on that subject, I still think along with many other people and many critics that it's up there with the best films ever made in this country."

He also reappeared after a film's end credits, often asking questions on key themes raised during a movie, urging viewers to reach deeper into their experience.

"Mutiny on the Bounty has unexpected pathos and perhaps unexpected suspense," was how he back-announced the 1935 classic, "but how do you feel about Captain Bligh, and perhaps Fletcher Christian? Is one wrong and the other right?"

Collins even placed intermissions into his broadcasts, and during one such screening of Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) asked, "Have you ever had cockatoos on your property or in trees around your house [and] you go out to shoo them away and they just look at you as if you're not there? They please themselves."

His introductions were devoid of spoilers and dispensed critical information about a source novel or the supporting cast and crew — tantalizingly reminding viewers where they might have seen that background actor or actress before.

And much of this before the days of IMDb.

In 2013, to celebrate his 50th year on television, Collins revealed his 10 favorite films of all time. Not surprisingly, Gone With the Wind (1939) was No. 1, a movie he presented more than any other and which also topped his original list in 1977.

"Perhaps we should not try too hard to find the reasons for its undiminished power for fear or laying bare the mechanics that make our spontaneous wonder and joy possible," he wrote in Bill Collins' Book of Movies.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) also made both incarnations of his list: "It remains one of the greatest triumphs in movie history. I love it. We should love without shame what we love."

So too did David Lean's Brief Encounter from 1945 ("this film is an emotional experience to be treasured forever"), 1940's Waterloo Bridge ("there are three women's performances that add so much to the film’s appeal"), 1944's The Razor's Edge ("an appreciation is dependent on having an open mind, on not underrating the film simply because it is so entertaining") and 1945's The Picture of Dorian Gray ("the extraordinary artistic temperament and movie style of Albert Lewin is, of course, the overwhelming force").

For completists, The Band Wagon (1953), Vertigo (1958), All About Eve (1950) and The Voice of the Turtle (1947) rounded out his most recent list.

William Roderick Collins was born in Sutherland, New South Wales, on Dec. 4, 1934. His father was a policeman, but he veered toward education for a living, working as a schoolteacher and college lecturer.

His first foray into television was on ABC's 1963 Roundabout program, where he presented a film appreciation segment. He then became a film columnist and began using the phrase "The Golden Years of Hollywood" as his call sign.

For almost 10 years until 1975, he presented on Saturday nights for TCN9 in Sydney before he moved to Channel 7. He took with him the program name The Golden Years of Hollywood, which caused a court battle by both stations over its use.

During his time on Channel 7 he also hosted Bill Collins' Picture Show and Bill Collins' Show Business, getting his name above the title in true cinematic style.

In 1980, Collins shifted to Channel 10, taking his program title with him, of course, and his audience followed.

After 15 years, he joined the new pay TV company Foxtel and became its figurehead, hosting double features on the Fox Classic channel. It was there that he ended his career, taping a farewell message for his final broadcast in October.

“To all my fans, I want to say thank you for your support of The Golden Years of Hollywood. Thank you so much, you've brought me so much pleasure. And I hope you have had much pleasure too."

Over the decades he interviewed all the big names of Hollywood, Roger Moore, Audrey Hepburn, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg among them.

At the end of a 2013 interview with Angela Lansbury, conducted on stage after one of her performances in Driving Miss Daisy, she praised him for upholding "the traditions of our business for years and with such aplomb and with such grace and knowledge of movies and theater and television and everything, that it's a great privilege to get to talk with you."

The much-loved presenter received an Order of Australian Medal in 1987 and was inducted into the Logie Hall of Fame (Australia's highest television award) in 2009.

He ended his speech that night with his favorite quote from Auntie Mame: "Life's a banquet, and most poor bastards are outside starving to death."

"Well, I'm telling you now," he added, "with my love of movies, I'm not starving, I'm having a ball, and I want others to join me in that as well."

Donations in his name can be made to Dymocks Children's Charities or Monika's Doggie Rescue.