The Washington Post

Indigenous Australian star of ‘Walkabout’ and ‘Storm Boy’

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David Gulpilil, the Aborigine actor and dancer who starred in acclaimed 1970s films “Walkabout” and “Storm Boy” and later had featured roles in “Crocodile Dundee,” “Rabbit-proof Fence” and Baz Luhrmann’s epic “Australia,” died Nov. 29 in Murray Bridge, southeast of Adelaide. He was believed to be about 68 years old.

The cause was lung cancer, South Australia state’s premier, Steven Marshall, said in a statement.

In a career spanning five decades, Mr. Gulpilil was often described as a bridge between Indigenous Australia and the outside world. An accomplish­ed didgeridoo player, he mixed with Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. He was feted in New York and Paris. He also spent periods of his life as an itinerant, drinking and sleeping in parks in the northern Australian city of Darwin, and was sent to prison for alcohol-fueled offenses.

Mr. Gulpilil was born on tribal land in the sparsely populated wilds of the Australian northern frontier in the early 1950s, his friend and caregiver Mary Hood said. His date of birth was recorded as July 1, 1953, a guesswork date set by local missionari­es.

First contacts between Indigenous Australian­s and the outside world were becoming rare but continued in the remote Outback for another 30 years from the time of Mr. Gulpilil’s birth. Family groups followed in nomadic traditions unaware their land had been colonized by Britain two centuries earlier.

Mr. Gulpilil said he never saw an Australian of European descent until he was 8 and considered English his sixth language, his biographer Derek Rielly wrote. The other 13 were Indigenous dialects. Mr. Gulpilil’s Christian name was foisted upon him at school. His full name was rendered David Gulpilil Ridjimirar­il Dalaithngu.

He was a 16-year-old ceremonial dancer performing in the Indigenous mission of Maningrida in 1969 when he met British director Nicolas Roeg, who was scouting for filming locations. Mr. Gulpilil co-starred in Roeg’s 1971 movie “Walkabout” as a lone youth wandering the Outback as part of a tribal rite of passage. He comes across and rescues two lost British children whose distraught father had driven them into the Outback with the intent of killing them and then dying by suicide. The British siblings were played by a teenage Jenny Agutter and the director’s 7-year-old son, Lucien.

The film — a beautifull­y photograph­ed and unsettling story about civilizati­on vs. nature, cultural understand­ing and cultural barriers, and sexual awakening — has been widely hailed as a masterpiec­e. For Mr. Gulpilil, roles followed in popular movies “Storm Boy” in 1976 and “The Last Wave” in 1977. His final role was the remake of “Storm Boy” in 2019, in which he played the father of his character in the original, Fingerbone Bill.

Mr. Gulpilil recalled learning to binge on alcohol and drugs from Dennis Hopper, who played the starring role in the 1976 movie about a 19th-century Australian outlaw, “Mad Dog Morgan.” The Indigenous actor had third billing on the film after Hopper and Jack Thompson, a stalwart in Australian cinema.

Mr. Gulpilil won multiple bestactor awards for the 2002 Rolf de Heer-directed movie “The Tracker,” in which he played one of the many Indigenous men who Australian police routinely used as trackers of fugitives in the Outback.

Weeks before the movie was released, journalist­s visited him in the small Indigenous community of Raminginin­g on his crocodile-infested tropical tribal land. He was living in a hut with his then-partner, Indigenous painter Robyn Djunginy, without power or running water.

They cooked kangaroo meat and fish over an open fire beneath a scrap iron roof. Hunting spears were slung from a rafter and Gulpilil kept a wooden Indigenous fighting club known as a nulla-nulla for self-protection.

“I was brought up in a tin shed. I wandered all over the world — Paris, New York — now I’m back in a tin shed,” Mr. Gulpilil said.

He presented himself as a victim of his own celebrity and his own people’s misunderst­anding of his position in the wider world.

“People say to me: You’re a big name. You have money. Why don’t you buy yourself a house; get out of Raminginin­g?” he said. “This is my country. I belong here, and I’m broke.”

Exactly why he was broke was not clear. He was vague about how much he earned over the years, and wealth in Australian Indigenous society is communal, tending to permeate through relatives and friends.

A Darwin judge sentenced Gulpilil in 2011 to a year in prison for breaking the arm of his then-partner, Indigenous artist Miriam Ashley, during a drunken argument in a Darwin home.

Director Peter Weir said during an interview in 1977 while promoting his supernatur­al thriller “The Last Wave” that Mr. Gulpilil had created untold personal tensions by straddling two disparate cultures. “He’s enigmatic,” Weir said. “He’s an actor, a dancer, a musician. He’s a tribal man, initiated in the tribal ways. He has a foot in both cultures. It’s an enormous strain on the man.”

“He has a foot in both cultures. It’s an enormous strain on the man.” Peter Weir, director of “The Last Wave,” on Mr. Gulpilil

 ?? 2013 PHOTO BY DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAP IMAGE/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? David Gulpilil at the Sydney Opera House, where he was presented with the Red Ochre at the Sixth National Indigenous Arts Awards. His storied life was full of personal and profession­al highs and lows.
2013 PHOTO BY DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAP IMAGE/ASSOCIATED PRESS David Gulpilil at the Sydney Opera House, where he was presented with the Red Ochre at the Sixth National Indigenous Arts Awards. His storied life was full of personal and profession­al highs and lows.

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