CLASS ACT

AUS­TRALIAN AC­TOR SI­MON BURKE HAS LIVED OUT A CHILD­HOOD DREAM FOR MORE THAN 40 YEARS, WHICH IS WHY HE SAYS HE’LL NEVER TAKE HIS SUC­CESS FOR GRANTED

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Words by NI­CHOLAS FON­SECA

He won an AFI award at 13, and Si­mon Burke is still liv­ing the dream.

There was a time when Si­mon Burke wanted to be a fa­ther. This was, he tells Stel­lar, “a pe­riod in my 30s and early 40s. I re­ally thought I would have been a great dad.” Now 55, he does not see the ab­sence of chil­dren in his home – cats Erik and Donni don’t quite count – as a missed op­por­tu­nity. “I’m quite happy not to be one. But look, word on the street is that I’ve brought up a cou­ple of mil­lion Aus­tralian kids, any­way.”

Burke is talk­ing, of course, about his two-decade run as a pre­sen­ter on Play School. The role suits some­one equally en­er­getic and avun­cu­lar, and Burke is both in spades, which may ex­plain why “in the last 10 years I’ve played a lot of dads”. For the 2007 re­vival of The Sound Of Mu­sic, he played Cap­tain Von Trapp. “I worked with 96 chil­dren over a year. Then I went to Toronto and worked with an­other 40.” He was Mr Banks in Mary Pop­pins, Ge­orges in La Cage Aux Folles and even Edna Turn­blad – tech­ni­cally a woman, al­ways played by a man – in Hair­spray.

Across th­ese shows, Burke worked with ac­tors of a cer­tain age – often a very young one. It forced him to re­flect on his own as­cent in a busi­ness that, for chil­dren, can be tricky if not im­pos­si­ble to nav­i­gate. “When you’re a child ac­tor, you re­mem­ber the peo­ple who were de­cent to you, who didn’t pa­tro­n­ise you. The ones who treated you like some­one else get­ting paid to do a job. I try to be like that. My door’s al­ways been open to any young ac­tor or ac­tress who wants to talk about what they do.”

THIS MAY BE Burke’s way of say­ing he recog­nises the hunger in those starry-eyed young­sters. He grew up in Dar­linghurst, long a work­ing-class sub­urb in in­ner Sydney, the son of “very much not stage par­ents who had noth­ing to do with the­atre what­so­ever”. Dad Michael, a po­lice­man, was “a com­plex, pretty hard guy”. Mum Bob­bie was a cler­i­cal staffer who worked, for a time, at the Royal Com­mis­sion on Hu­man Re­la­tion­ships. “Very, very crazy,” he says, try­ing to sti­fle a laugh. “Very ’70s.”

Burke quite lit­er­ally walked into his fu­ture ca­reer when he was eight years

old. A neigh­bour was mak­ing cos­tumes for a chil­dren’s pro­duc­tion at a nearby the­atre; asked to help her carry them down the street one day, he obliged.

“I walked all the way, lug­ging those cos­tumes,” he says. “It was the first time I’d ever been in an empty the­atre. No­body was in the stalls. I walked on­stage and, I know this sounds spooky, but a feel­ing came over me, this kind of epiphany: This is where I want to be. And just as I felt that, the woman di­rect­ing the show said, ‘Oh, you look the right height to play Ro-boy! Would you like to be in our play?’ I got cast then and there.”

By the time he was 12, Burke was act­ing op­po­site Peter Car­roll and Mag­gie Dence; in 1976, he be­came the youngest-ever ac­tor to win an AFI Award (the feat still stands) for his work in The Devil’s Play­ground. Six months out of high school, he played Mel Gib­son’s ser­vant in Romeo And Juliet. “I never trained be­cause I kept work­ing,” Burke says. “I never wanted my early suc­cess to be a free ticket – I al­ways made sure I was start­ing over again.”

THIS COM­MIT­MENT TO his ca­reer never came at the ex­pense of an en­rich­ing per­sonal life – with one ex­cep­tion. In 1996, Burke was liv­ing in Lon­don, “do­ing A Lit­tle Night Mu­sic at the Na­tional The­atre with Judi Dench,” he re­calls. “There I go, name­drop­ping again. I’d planned to keep my ca­reer go­ing there, but my dad got ill with can­cer and I had to come home to say good­bye since he only had a few months to live.

“It sounds harsh, but when I saw him I re­mem­ber say­ing that I had to get back to Lon­don. Then I re­alised, no, you can’t do that. We weren’t ter­ri­bly close, but I let the op­por­tu­nity go to spend time with him. As it turned out, he lived an­other three or four years. But life took a very dif­fer­ent turn be­cause of that.”

Burke’s lat­est show, the back­stage clas­sic Noises Off, opens in Mel­bourne this Wed­nes­day. When re­hearsals be­gan in Brisbane, where this re­vival orig­i­nated, Burke was in the last week of an­other play in­ter­state. For seven days he played su­per com­muter. “I was get­ting a 6am flight ev­ery day,” says Burke. “I would then leave at 1.30pm to catch a 3pm flight back to Sydney – then do a show at night. Both shows were farces… the whole thing was far­ci­cal. I’m not sure how much work I did on ei­ther project that week – I mostly ob­sessed about whether planes would ar­rive on time.”

His mum will be in Mel­bourne for open­ing night; so will Peter, his part­ner of 13 years. In a nice bit of kismet, Burke met Peter on open­ing night of the last show he starred in for the Mel­bourne The­atre Com­pany. “So he’d bet­ter be there for this show,” he says with a laugh.

Burke never re­ally “came out” to the Aus­tralian public, is loath to ex­am­ine what his sex­u­al­ity has or hasn’t done for his ca­reer, and tries to avoid be­ing la­belled as such. His rea­son­ing? “Be­ing a per­former is such an ex­pos­ing thing. You’re al­ways judged on su­per­fi­cial fac­tors – you lit­er­ally may miss out on a role be­cause you’re two inches too short, or due to your eye colour. I wouldn’t call my­self a gay ac­tivist, but a po­lit­i­cal per­son who is deeply con­cerned about a num­ber of is­sues.”

For years, says Burke, “I didn’t hide [be­ing gay] so much as I didn’t talk about it.” But if you think he loses sleep at night, wring­ing his hands over what might have been had he talked about it more or never spo­ken about it all, think again. “Here’s what I do want to say: when you be­come more com­fort­able with the in­dus­try and your place in the world, it’s eas­ier to be­come com­fort­able with the whole of your­self.”

“WHEN YOU’RE A CHILD AC­TOR, YOU RE­CALL THE PEO­PLE WHO WERE DE­CENT TO YOU; WHO DIDN’T PA­TRO­N­ISE YOU”

TAL­ENT TIME (clock­wise from left) Si­mon Burke with the cast of

Noises Off; in Devil’s Play­ground; dur­ing his Play School years; with Todd Mcken­ney (left) and Rhonda Burch­more in La Cage Aux Folles.

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