Indigenous actor David Gulpilil is not just a local hero, he’s a national treasure.
Born in Arnhem Land, NT, in 1953, where he grew up steeped in the traditions and customs of the Yolngu people, Gulpilil 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.
The 16-year-old Gulpilil 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, like Wake in Fright (1971), 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 Gulpilil on a career path that has spanned almost 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).
Gulpilil’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 Gulpilil 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 Gulpilil received the AACTA/AFI award for Best Actor – as well as the groundbreaking Ten Canoes (2006).
David Gulpilil’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.”