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
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.