Examining the film career of the late Jon Blake, one is justified in asking the question: How did this man remain so adored?
The New Zealand-born actor's most high-profile film, Simon Wincer's The Lighthorsemen (1987, pictured), was handsomely-mounted but hamstrung by a script full of ockerisms; it was never held in the same high regard as Peter Weir's Gallipoli (1981), the film whose critical and commercial success it was trying to emulate and which arguably led to Blake's most accomplished work as part of the ensemble cast of the landmark TV mini-series, ANZACS.
Blake's other big-screen efforts engender knowing nods at best – that 'Oh yeah, I think I remember that one...' response – but are minor works in Australian film history. From his debut as 'Young Slim' in Rob Stewart's docudrama The Slim Dusty Movie (1984), Blake made David Hannay's straight-to-VHS thriller Early Frost (1982); worked with Scott Hicks on the man/Porsche love story Freedom (1982), a visually appealing action-drama that stalled at the box office; and then teamed with The Man from Snowy River's George Miller on the little-seen horse opera Cool Change (1986).
His last film in cinemas (briefly) was John Dixon's high-energy/low-IQ thriller, Running from the Guns (1987), shot prior to The Lighthorsemen and the terrible car accident on December 1, 1986, that caused irreparable brain damage and physical trauma to the then 28 year-old as drove home from the last day of shooting in the South Australian countryside.
Perhaps the fervent teenage memories of those whose hearts throbbed for him during his stints on the soaps The Restless Years, Five Mile Creek (opposite Nicole Kidman) and A Country Practice (where I first met him) have fuelled the ongoing affinity the industry and the public have for the man. That seems unlikely though, as the fans loving embrace of him and his plight post-accident seems far more deeply felt than simply the warm glow of nostalgia; for years, people who knew Blake only by his work would trek to the family's Castlecrag home and assist his mother and full-time carer, the late Mascot, in her physically-draining work providing physiotherapy for her son.
It is most likely that Jon Blake remained loved because he represented the manifestation of that intangible quality called 'star power' or 'the X factor'. Producer Hal McElroy once said of Jon Blake, “I think he's talented, and I still see it in his face since the accident, that there is something happening there that's extraordinary and irresistible … to an audience.”
Recent coverage of an unrecognisable Blake moving into a new home on the New South Wales' Central Coast in the care of his son Dustin suggested a new phase of his life was beginning. It was not to be. The footage also denies the man once dubbed “the next Mel Gibson” the ageless, mythical allure of those talents who will be remembered in their prime, like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. But Jon Blake will remain one of Australia's much loved acting sons, not because of the standard of his collaborations, which barely hinted at the potential he held, but because of the integrity, intensity and empathy he brought to them.