Oz’s Gulpilil, Indigenous actor from Crocodile Dundee, dies

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Aboriginal actor David Dalaithngu (right) posing for photos with actors Nicole Kidman (centre), Hugh Jackman (left) and Brandon Walters (below) prior to the world premier for the movie Australia in Sydney. AFP

David Dalaithngu, the Indigenous Australian actor who mesmerised audiences in his breakout movie Walkabout and was hailed as one of the country’s greatest artists, has died at the age of 68, four years after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Dalaithngu, who was from the Mandhalpingu clan of the Yolngu people and was raised in Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory, won international accolades for his piercing performances.

After his first film Walkabout (1971), his career spanned five decades and took in works from Storm Boy (1976) to Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), The Tracker (2002), and Charlie’s Country (2013), for which he won Cannes’ “Un Certain Regard” award for best actor.

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David Gulpilil poses for The Tracker shown in competition at the 59th Venice Film festival on September 6, 2002. AFP

‘Mirror to the soul’

He was probably most widely known for his role in Crocodile Dundee (1986), shortly after which he received the Order of Australia and was named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

The actor and Aboriginal dancer spent his final years in Murray Bridge, South Australia because of ill health.

“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,” South Australia Premier Steven Marshall said in a statement on November 30.

“He was a brother, son, friend, father, grandfather and husband. An actor, dancer, singer and painter, he was also one of the greatest artists Australia has ever seen,” he said.

“My thoughts are with his family, and his dear friend and carer Mary Hood.”

The actor’s family asked for him to be referred to only as David Dalaithngu, rather than his full name, in line with Indigenous custom for those who have recently died.

Most Australian media including national broadcaster ABC respected the wish.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Dalaithngu was a “mirror to the soul of Australia”.

“On stage, television and the big screen, David shone and reflected something massive . . . of the 60,000-year history of indigenous people of this country back to ourselves,” he told parliament.

Hugh Jackman, who co-starred with Dalaithngu in Australia (2008), said on Instagram: “From his cheeky laugh, to that mischievous glint in his eye and effortless ease in front of the camera . . . His humanity is irreplaceable.”

The Indigenous actor’s life was also blighted by alcohol and periods of poverty.

‘Throw a spear’

In September 2011, he was given a one-year sentence and ordered to spend a minimum of five months in jail for hitting his wife with a broomstick while drunk.

Dalaithngu’s lawyer at the time said he was embarrassed and wanted to stop drinking and get back to making movies, which he did.

Two years ago, when accepting a lifetime achievement award, Dalaithngu recalled how he was recruited for Walkabout as an adolescent in Arnhem Land.

“I was a young boy growing up going to school. They came up looking for an Aboriginal boy who can play this part, throw a spear, dance and singing and they said: ‘Yeah, he’s alright’,” he said in a video shown to the awards ceremony of the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee.

The artist said his own favourite film was Storm Boy but he considered his best to be The Tracker.

But he spoke also of his cancer.

“Never forget me while I am here. I will never forget you. I will still remember you even though I am gone forever. I will still remember,” he said.