NOTE: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are warned that the following article contains the name and images of a person who has died. The family have granted the media permission to use both.

Indigenous actor and Australian cinema icon David Dalaithngu has passed away, aged 68.

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall announced the news in a statement last night: “It is with deep sadness that I share with the people of South Australia the passing of an iconic, once-in-a-generation artist who shaped the history of Australian film and Aboriginal representation on screen – David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu.

“An actor, dancer, singer and painter, he was also one of the greatest artists Australia has ever seen.”

Born in Arnhem Land, NT, in 1953, where he grew up steeped in the traditions and customs of the Yolngu people, Dalaithngu was already a skilled tribal dancer and performer when he was handpicked by British director Nicolas Roeg to star in Walkabout (1971), an adaptation of the novel by James Vance Marshall.

Walkabout

The 16-year-old Dalaithngu made his film debut as the unnamed indigenous youth who befriends two white children (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg) after they are abandoned in the outback by their deranged father.

Walkabout is one of the great Australian films made by an international director, beautifully capturing the harsh milieu of the outback and the collision of two vastly different cultures. It was also the first film of its time to cast an indigenous actor in a leading role, launching Dalaithngu on a career path that has spanned 50 years.

The actor’s other iconic roles during the 1970s include Fingerbone Bill in the classic Storm Boy (1976), the enigmatic Chris Lee in Peter Weir’s mystical The Last Wave (1977), and friend to Dennis Hopper’s wild bushranger in Phillipe Mora’s cult favourite Mad Dog Morgan (1976).

Storm Boy

Dalaithngu’s talents were brought to a global audience in 1986 with the success of Crocodile Dundee – in which he demonstrates his flair for comedy as Mick’s mate, Neville – and was subsequently honoured as a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to the arts.   

However, it’s in the smaller local productions following Dundee that he has delivered some of his finest work. A favourite of director Rolf de Heer, the pair have collaborated on The Tracker (2002) and Charlie’s Country – for which Dalaithngu received the 2015 AACTA/AFI award for Best Actor – as well as the groundbreaking Ten Canoes (2006).

David Dalaithngu’s remarkable body of work and indelible impact on Australian cinema is best described by de Heer in a piece written for The Sydney Morning Herald in 2015: “If we remember that David started his career shortly after the 1967 referendum granting Australian citizenship to Aboriginal people, we get some idea of what a trailblazer he has been, how by the sheer quality of his work, and his almost magical presence, he has forged a path that wasn’t there before, one that others have since been able to follow.”

Diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017, he was given just six months to live but defied the odds to complete the documentary feature My Name is Gulpilil, which he described as  “my story of my story.” It’s a final, moving tribute to the great man and pioneer who straddled two cultures.