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Aussie Actor Bill Hunter dies

Aussie bloke of screen was larger than life
Jason Blake

ACTOR Bill Hunter was an Australian icon who will be sorely missed, Prime Minister Julia Gillard says.

Hunter died at a Melbourne hospice on Saturday, aged 71, after a battle with cancer.

Ms Gillard on Sunday paid tribute to Mr Hunter's enormous contribution to the nation.

"Mr Hunter played a key role as an acclaimed actor in helping to define Australian culture over five decades on screen and on stage," she said.

"He told us Australian stories in an Australian voice at a time when we were debating and developing our sense of national identity."

The Prime Minister said Hunter had brought Australian characters to life using his great talent in roles from Newsfront in 1978 to Strictly Ballroom and his most recent film Red Dog.

Bio: Bill Hunter, 1940-2011

With its superstar cast, Stanley Kramer's On the Beach (1959) changed the world view of many Australians, even if it tended to cement the world's view of Melbourne as the last place on earth. It set a new direction for one young man in particular, a fit young bloke from Ballarat by the name of Bill Hunter.

It wasn't raw acting ability that got the 19-year-old Hunter noticed by the film's casting agent, but his talent as a swimmer. Anthony Perkins needed a stunt double and Hunter was a state freestyle champion and until very recently, an Olympic Games hopeful. ''I was instantly and irrevocably in love [with acting],'' Hunter later said of the time he spent on that production. ''It was also something you could do - and still can - without training.''

It was from there Hunter went on to join that select group of larger-than-life figures in Australian film culture, actors whose emergence paralleled that of the local film industry and who went on to create roles of unashamedly blokey Australian men.

William John Hunter was born in 1940, one of three children (brother John, sister Marie Ann) to father William and mother Francie, well known in Ballarat as publicans of, among others, the Miller's Arms and the North Star. His father was the youngest of a family of seven and all were large-living hard drinkers. All were dead by the age of 55, recalled Hunter in an interview published in The Age in 1994.

Just 12 when he left school (he was ''an awful student'', he confessed), he started farm mechanics, dropped out and went droving. He had a stint as a cadet reporter in Adelaide, followed by a job on the ABC mail desk in Sydney.

For a time, it looked most likely that Hunter would make his name as a swimmer. ''I beat Murray Rose twice,'' he told an interviewer in 1978, ''but he always beat me when it counted''.

 Bill Hunter's films


    Road to Nhill
    Bad Eggs
    Finding Nemo (voice)
    Mad Dog Morgan
    The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
    Muriel's Wedding
    Strictly Ballroom

Selection for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome beckoned, but his sporting career was abruptly terminated by a bout of meningitis. It left him, he later said, ''a bit deranged'' and deaf in his left ear.

But swimming got Hunter on to a film set and gave him the physical heft he was able to exploit. He worked in Kings Cross for a couple of years in the early '60s. He was reluctant to say exactly at what. He picked up bit parts in TV and his rugged good looks got him some modelling work.

Like many fledgling actors of his generation Hunter sailed for England for a couple of joyless but busy years as a rep theatre player, churning through 26 plays every six months on three pounds, five shillings a week.

On his return, he picked up a number of roles in local TV - heavies, mostly - and shows such as Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police had an unquenchable need for actors who could play tough.

Film roles came slowly at first. After a notable appearance in Esben Storm's 27A (1974), he joined George Lazenby and Frank Thring in The Man From Hong Kong (1975), and played opposite Dennis Hopper in Mad Dog Morgan (1976).

 But it would be his performance in Phillip Noyce's Newsfront that would break the mould for Hunter and catapult him into the big league. ''I had 22 years of strangling little old ladies and raping their cats,'' he told a Sun-Herald reporter in 1980. ''That was long enough.''

 His portrayal of cameraman Len Maguire, a devout Catholic who sees both his marriage and the newsreel industry to which he has devoted his entire professional life disintegrate, garnered international praise. Despite that, Hunter chose to stay close to home, appearing in more than 100 film and television productions, including Gallipoli (1981), Strictly Ballroom (1992), Muriel's Wedding (1994) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). He appeared in many TV mini-series, notably Scales of Justice and The Dismissal (both 1983) and he was awarded three Australian Film Institute Awards for his work. Of course, no Australian actor could get by without appearing in some stinkers along the way, such as The Return of Captain Invincible (1984), which was, in his estimation at least, ''bloody awful''.

''The thing about Bill," said the producer Sandra Levy, "is that as an actor he is always so distinctively and truthfully Australian.''

Hunter wasn't a regular on the stage. He appeared as Prospero in a calypso-tinged production of Shakespeare's The Tempest at the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens in 1999. More recently he delighted audiences as Bob, the bush mechanic who falls for Tony Sheldon's ageing drag artiste in Priscilla Queen of the Desert - The Musical.

His generosity with friends and drinking feats were legendary. He earned good money fast and he spent it vigorously. Occasionally he had no recollection exactly what he spent it on. Despite lucrative commercials for the Keating Labor government's Working Nation advertising campaign and a string of BHP television spots, Hunter was declared insolvent in 1991.

His romantic life was similarly energetic. His first marriage was to the actress Pat Bishop, who died in 2000. He remarried in 1993 to Rhoda Roberts, nearly 20 years his junior and a presenter on SBS at the time, whom he met in a Sydney pub in 1992. They divorced in 1999 and remained friends.

According to all reports, Hunter was in good shape personally and professionally until very recently. He finished work on two Australian features, the adaptation of the Louis de Bernieres's novel Red Dog (to be released in August) and The Cup, in which he portrayed the horse trainer Bart Cummings (due for release in October). Hunter also features in a black-comedy series currently screening on the Movie Network, Small Time Gangster, and was planning further roles.

 "As an actor he is always so distinctively and truthfully Australian"

Ms Gillard extended her condolences to the actor's family and friends on behalf of all Australians.

A memorial service for Hunter will be held on Thursday at 2pm at The Princess Theatre in Melbourne

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