Australia’s most acclaimed Indigenous actor, David Gulpilil, has died of lung cancer, a government leader said. He was 68 years old.
Gulpilil found his widest audiences with his roles in the 1986 hit film Crocodile Dundee and in director Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 epic Australia, in a career that spanned five decades. He was often described as a bridge between Indigenous Australia and the outside world who never fit comfortably in either place.
“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,” South Australia state premier Steven Marshall said.
An accomplished didgeridoo player, Gulpilil mixed with Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. He was feted in New York and Paris. He also spent periods of his life as an itinerant, drinking and sleeping in parks in the northern city of Darwin, and stints in prison for alcohol-fuelled offences.
Gulpilil was born on tribal land in the sparsely populated wilds of the Australian northern frontier in the early 1950s, his friend and caregiver Mary Hood said. His date of birth was recorded as July 1, 1953, a guesswork date set by local missionaries.
Gulpilil said he never saw a European Australian until he was eight years old and considered English his sixth language, his biographer Derek Rielly wrote. Gulpilil’s Christian name was foisted upon him at school.
Gulpilil was a 16-year-old ceremonial dancer performing in the Indigenous mission of Maningrida in 1969 when he met the British director Nicolas Roeg, who was scouting for filming locations. Gulpilil starred in Roeg’s acclaimed 1971 film Walkabout as a lone youth who comes across and rescues two lost British children. The British siblings were played by a teenage Jenny Agutter and the director’s seven-year-old son, Lucien.
Roles followed in Storm Boy in 1976 and The Last Wave in 1977.
His final role was the remake of Storm Boy in 2019, in which he played the father of the central character in the original, Fingerbone Bill.
Gulpilil recalled learning to binge on alcohol and drugs from counter-culture icon Dennis Hopper, who played the starring role in the 1976 film about a 19th-century Australian outlaw, Mad Dog Morgan.
Gulpilil won multiple best-actor awards for the 2002 Rolf de Herr-directed film The Tracker, in which he played one of the many Indigenous men Australian police routinely used as trackers of fugitives in the Outback.
Weeks before the fil was released, journalists visited him in the small Indigenous community of Ramingining on his crocodile-infested tribal land. He was living in a hut with his then-partner, Indigenous painter Robyn Djunginy, without power or running water.
“I was brought up in a tin shed. I wandered all over the world — Paris, New York — now I’m back in a tin shed,” Gulpilil said.
He presented himself as a victim of his own celebrity and his own people’s misunderstanding of his position in the wider world.
“People say to me: You’re a big name. You have money. Why don’t you buy yourself a house; get out of Ramingining?” he said.
“This is my country. I belong here, and I’m broke,” he added.
Exactly why he was broke was not clear. He was vague about how much he earned over the years, and wealth in Australian Indigenous society is communal, tending to permeate through relatives and friends.
Gulpilil’s friend and caregiver, Mary Hood, first met him in 2006 at the Darwin premiere of Ten Canoes, the first feature-length film in an Australian Indigenous language.
Gulpilil narrated the film and his son, Jamie Gulpilil, was part of the cast, which was mostly drawn from Ramingining.
Ms Hood became his caregiver after he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 2017.
He is survived by his sisters, Mary and Evonne, his daughters, Makia and Phoebe, and his sons, Jamie and Jida.
The director Peter Weir said during an interview in New York in 1977 while promoting his supernatural thriller The Last Wave that Gulpilil had created untold personal tensions by straddling two disparate cultures.
“He’s enigmatic. He’s an actor, a dancer, a musician. He’s a tribal man, initiated in the tribal ways,” Weir said. “He has a foot in both cultures. It’s an enormous strain on the man.”
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