Australian screens are not the same today, following the death of veteran actor Bill Hunter. The great everyman who helped define how the country sees itself, Hunter passed away on Saturday evening at a hospice in the Melbourne suburb of Kew after a brief struggle with an inoperable cancer. He was aged 71.
During his life Hunter had little time for plaudits or analysis. He was a working actor, who loved his profession but never talked about it as an art. Nonetheless, his passing has brought plaudits from friends and family, admirers and public figures.
He was lauded by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who rightly noted that: “Mr. Hunter played a key role as an acclaimed actor in helping to define Australian culture over five decades on screen and on stage. He told us Australian stories in an Australian voice at a time when we were debating and developing our sense of national identity.”
Others spoke of his acceptance for all and sense of equality – there was no hierarchy on a film set or within life, as far as Bill Hunter was concerned.
“As I got to know him I realised a lot of other blackfellas knew him, too,” recalled the Aboriginal activist, educator and actor, Gary Foley, who first met Hunter in Kings Cross in the 1960s and later co-starred with him in Phillip Noyce's landmark 1977 feature, Backroads. “He was just a normal person around us, which not a lot of whitefellas were in those days. It was the essential goodness in him that appealed to blackfellas.”
“Bill really was a man of the people, humble, dignified and sincere,” read a statement released by his family. “We have received strength in meeting many friends of Bill's that traveled great distances to be at his bedside and say goodbye. The stories of their mateship with Bill are vivid and unique, so even in death, we are learning new things about his incredible life.”
William John Hunter was born in 1940, one of three children to parents who were Ballarat publicans. An unhappy student, he left school at the age of 12 and tried his hand at droving, mechanics and reporting.
But for a bout of meningitis, Bill Hunter may well have been remembered today as an Australian sporting great. As a teenager Hunter was a competitive swimmer who won state championships in Victoria and was on track to represent Australia at the Olympic Games. But illness sidelined him, and soon after he found a new passion, when he was hired as a swimming double for Anthony Perkins in Stanley Kramer's On the Beach, a Hollywood drama about the end of the world set and shot in Melbourne.
As with many aspiring actors, Hunter made the move to London in the mid sixties, toiling in repertory theatre, but he returned to Australia and began to work steadily on television, where his size and bearing earnt him roles on police series such as Division 4 and Homicide.
Like the Australian film industry itself, Hunter came of age as a screen actor in the second half of the 1970s. He delivered powerful, nuanced performances that spoke to both the national character and his character's personal struggles. Hunter won acclaim as newsreel cameraman Len Maguire in Noyce's Newsfront in 1978, before giving what may have been his finest achievement, as Major Barton, the officer who must send his troops to almost certain death in the Peter Weir's 1981 classic, Gallipoli.
Those roles made Hunter a star, but he never had the bearing or demands of one. He would do small, telling supporting roles on television – where in the eighties he came to represent an Australian hierarchy that was officially flawed – or a few days on an American production shooting locally (when On the Beach was remade as an American mini-series in 2000, he played Australia's Prime Minister).
As a screen presence he was a minimalist, giving naturalistic screen performances that values honesty and emotional openness; histrionics were never his way. In the nineties he proved that he had a feel for comedy, subverting his tough screen persona in Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom and P.J. Hogan's Muriel's Wedding. Hunter also anchored Stephan Elliott's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, as Bob, the gruff but gentle outback mechanic who courts Terence Stamp's transsexual, Bernadette.
Hunter's personal life was equally colourful, and as the continuation of a long line of hard drinkers he had struggles with alcohol that he would eventually discuss publicly, along with a bankruptcy that stemmed in part from an overly generous nature when out and about. There was an undercurrent of turmoil in many of his performances, and it was an extension of his personal life.
In his latter years Hunter was an eclectic and welcome screen presence: you could hear him as the Sydney dentist with a harbourside office in Pixar's Finding Nemo, or see him in independent features such as Alkinos Tsilimidos' Tom White or Nash Edgerton's The Square. Hunter was working regularly up until recently, playing legendary horse trainer Bart Cummings in the forthcoming story of jockey Damien Oliver, The Cup, and shooting a scene on August's Red Dog. To the end he was an actor, one that will be nigh on impossible to replace.