Bill Hunter: Actor known for archetypal, gruff Australians in films like 'Gallipoli' and 'Strictly Ballroom'

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The Independent Online

One of Australia's most prolific actors, the gravelly voiced Bill Hunter was a commanding presence, recognised by international audiences after the film Newsfront rode the New Wave that signalled a fresh confidence among the country's writers, producers, directors and actors in the 1970s. They were carving out a sense of Australian identity and putting on screen their own history.

Newsfront (1978), directed by Phillip Noyce, charts the demise of newsreel camera teams at a time of sweeping social and political change, between 1949 and 1956 – particularly as the death knell is sounded with the advent oftelevision. Although confrontingbrutal realities that are universal,the film gives a voice to the Australian experience. This includes the "reds under the beds" scares that were typical of the Prime Minister Robert Menzies's era. Hunter – with moustache and spectacles – plays the camera operator Len Maguire, an old-timer resistant to change and a dedicated professional willing to risk his life covering fires and floods, at the expense of his marriage.

Three years later, he was acting the commanding officer forced to order his troops "over the top", out ofthe trenches to their deaths, in Gallipoli, a film about the futile sacrifice of Australians and New Zealanders fighting for the British Empire in Turkey during the First World War, written by David Williamson and directed by Peter Weir. In one of Australian cinema's most powerful scenes, Hunter is seen the night before the slaughter, sipping champagne and whistling along, fatalistically, to Bizet's Pearl Fishers duet on a gramophone. On the battlefield, guilt is etched into every line of his face.

Integrity and believability were at the heart of this performance by an actor who, time and again, portrayed the archetypal, gruff Australian with an air of compassion. However, that quality was lacking when Hunter – minus moustache and glasses, but wearing a blond toupée – acted the Australian Dancing Federation president in the romantic comedy Strictly Ballroom (1992), fixing a contest when a rebel couple (played by Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice) perform a spontaneous, improvised routine. Now, Hunter was working with Baz Luhrmann, one of the next generation of Australian directors to win worldwide plaudits.

In 1994, the compassion was back when he played the warm-hearted, open-minded mechanic, Bob, in the road film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. After mending a broken-down bus transporting two drag queens and a transsexual to Alice Springs to put on a show, Bob – a bearded Hunter, with headband – joins them on the trip, forming a special bond with Bernadette (Terence Stamp). There was also international acclaim for Muriel's Wedding (1994), in which Hunter switched back to playing an unsympathetic character, the bride's father, a corrupt local politician who produces a crate of beer to induce police not to arrest his daughter for shoplifting a dress.

Many of these productions depicted provincial Australia and Hunter's career ran in parallel to the success of the country's New Wave and post-New Wave cinema. He was never tempted to move to Hollywood, following Mel Gibson – the star of Gallipoli – and the directors Weir, Noyce, Bruce Beresford and Gillian Armstrong.

The hard-drinking actor was born in 1940 in Ballarat Victoria, wherehis parents ran pubs. His father, William, came from a family of seven, all of them dead by the age of 55 through their drinking, Hunter said. Leaving school at 13 he worked as a drover,then as a junior reporter on anAdelaide newspaper, followed by aperiod in the post room at the Sydney offices of the broadcaster ABC. When he showed talent as a swimmer, hewas chosen for his country's 1956 Melbourne Olympics team but had to pull out with meningitis.

After work as an extra on the film The Shiralee (1957), an Ealing Studios drama made in Australia, Hunter was hired as a swimming double forthe Australian actor John Meillon in On the Beach (1959), an American picture shot around Melbourne and directed by Stanley Kramer. He also doubled for the nuclear fall-out drama's stars, Gregory Peck and Anthony Perkins, and said that he was inspired to act after seeing Peck and thinking he could do better.

As a result, Hunter enrolled on an acting course in Melbourne, then won a two-year scholarship to the Northampton repertory company in Britain. He moved on to the new Nottingham Playhouse, where, under the classical actor John Neville as artistic director, he gained valuable experience. While in the country, he made his television début, as an extra, in the 1966 Doctor Who story "The Ark".

Returning to Australia because his father was dying, Hunter was soon landing television roles there, in popular series such as the spy drama Hunter (1967) and the worldwide success Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1968). As a character actor, he sometimes took multiple parts in the same series – 13 in Homicide (1967-75), six in Division 4 (1969-75) and 11 in Matlock Police (1971-76). He also had regular roles as Captain Pollock in Spyforce (1971-73) and as George Lucas – who dates the warder Vera Bennett (Fiona Spence) and is involved in supplying drugs to inmates – in Prisoner (1979, screened outside Australia as Prisoner: Cell Block H).

But Hunter was tiring of playing heavies when Phillip Noyce gave him the starring role in Newsfront. "I had 22 years of strangling little, old ladies and raping their cats," he said in 1980. "That was long enough." His other films included Death of a Soldier (1986) and the disappointing epic Australia (2008), and he voiced the dentist in Finding Nemo (2003). The actor's final film role was as the real-life racehorse trainer Bart Cummings in The Cup, set for release in Australia in October.

The Australian Film Institutepresented Hunter with its Best Actor award in 1978 for Newsfront and itsBest Supporting Actor honour three years later for Gallipoli. In 2001, hereceived the Australian government's Centenary Medal for services toacting. Always generous with his money, once hiring a jet to fly friends tothe Melbourne Cup, Hunter was declared bankrupt in 1996. Both of his marriages, to the actor Pat Bishop and the television presenter Rhoda Roberts, ended in divorce.

William John Bourke Hunter, actor: born Ballarat, Victoria 27 February 1940; married 1976 Pat Bishop (marriage dissolved), 1992 Rhoda Roberts (divorced 1999); died Melbourne 21 May 2011.