• Ernie Dingo in Tudawali. (YouTube)Source: YouTube
The 1955 Australian film epic 'Jedda' made Robert Tudawali the first male Indigenous film star but behind the cameras lay a colourful and tragic life.
Karina Marlow

10 Feb 2016 - 2:51 PM  UPDATED 19 Feb 2016 - 12:23 PM
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following article contains images of deceased persons.

Early life

Robert Tudawali was born to Tiwi parents on Melville Island, Northern Territory in 1929.

He later described growing up on the turquoise waters...

'I hunted, fought, sang like all my people. No clothes. No worries. The country I ran in was my own—every rock, tree meant something to me'.

Tudawali journeyed by canoe to Darwin with his parents in the late 1930s and began studying at the Native Affairs Branch School at the Kahlin compound.

He frequently took on the name Bobby Wilson (using the surname of his father’s boss) and was even referred to as ‘Gentleman Bobbie’ for the moderate tone of his voice.

WWII service

In 1941, Robert Tudawali became a medical orderly in the Royal Australian Air Force aid-post in Darwin. He was later moved to the base at Mataranka after the first Japanese air raids and worked in the army store and as a mechanic before moving back to Darwin to work in the mess hall at the Larrakeyah Barracks.

In 1948 Robert married Peggy, a Wadyigini woman who taught him to read and write, and they lived together at the Bagot Native Settlement in Darwin. Tudawali worked mainly menial jobs but was a good boxer and a promising AFL player.

Acting acclaim

In 1952, Robert Tudawali was chosen by film director Charles Chauvel and his wife Elsa for a lead role in the full-length film Jedda. This would make Tudawali and his co-star, Ngarla Kunoth (Rosalie Kunoth-Monks), the first Indigenous actors to play a lead role in a feature film.

Jedda was also the first Australian film to be recorded in colour, with the motion picture shot primarily in Northern Territory locations including Ormiston Gorge and Stanley Chasm.  

Tudawali played the character of Marbuck, an Aboriginal man who lures the title character Jedda, an Aboriginal woman from the pastoral homestead where she was raised as white to his own traditional community.

The film was acclaimed in Australia and was nominated for the Palme D’Or award at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival.

Tudawali went on to act in the 1958 film ‘Dust in the Sun’, the play ‘Burst of Summer’ and the 1960 television series ‘Whiplash’.

Involvement in the Wave Hill Protest

In 1966 Tudawali was elected vice-President of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights which extended practical support to the stockmen who had walked off the Wave Hill cattle station in protest at their poor treatment.

Arrangements were made by a worker’s union for Tudawali to tour south-eastern Australia in order to educate people and raise the profile of the strikers.  However Tudawali was stopped by the Northern Territory Administration from leaving the state as he had recently been diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Later life

Robert Tudawali’s health worsened during the 1960s and he was gaoled for repeated alcohol-related offences.

In 1967 he was severely burned during an argument in the Bagot community in Darwin and he died on the 26th of July in Darwin Hospital at the age of 38, survived by his wife and two daughters.

A film of Tudawali’s life was made in 1987 with Ernie Dingo in the title role. The film follows his life from the making of Jedda right through until his early death. 


NITV is screening the iconic biopic Tudawali, starring Ernie Dingo at 9.30pm on Sunday 21st of February and Jedda is available on SBS OnDemand now.