David Gulpilil, famed Aboriginal actor, dies at 68

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David Gulpilil, famed Aboriginal actor, dies at 68
In a career that began with the film “Walkabout” 50 years ago, he was acclaimed for changing the way Australia’s Indigenous people were portrayed and viewed.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- David Gulpilil, an Indigenous Australian who found film stardom as a teenager in 1971 when he was featured in “Walkabout” and went on to become Australia’s most famous Aboriginal actor, appearing in dramas like “Charlie’s Country,” for which he won a best-actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, and comedies like the 1986 hit “Crocodile Dundee,” died Monday in Murray Bridge, in South Australia. He was 68.

Steven Marshall, South Australia’s top official, announced his death. In 2017 Gulpilil learned that he had terminal lung cancer, something he addressed in a documentary released this year called “My Name Is Gulpilil.”

Marshall, in a statement, called Gulpilil “an iconic, once-in-a-generation artist who shaped the history of Australian film and Aboriginal representation onscreen.” Others had heaped similar praise on Gulpilil over the years. In 2019, presenting him with a lifetime achievement award, the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee, which celebrates Indigenous Australian communities, said he “revolutionized the way the world saw Aboriginal people.”

Gulpilil often played characters who explore or are affected by the intersection of Indigenous and modern cultures in Australia, something he knew from personal experience and did not always handle well. In between his acting roles, he had trouble with alcohol and spent time in prison, including for domestic abuse. Although Gulpilil sometimes seemed to mix easily in the broader world, Rolf de Heer, the director with whom he worked most often, said demons found him there.

“David can’t handle alcohol,” de Heer said in his director’s notes for “Charlie’s Country.” “He can’t handle cigarettes, or sugary drinks, or almost anything addictive. All of these substances, foreign to his culture, both soothe him and enrage him.”

One part of the moviemaking world that Gulpilil didn’t have trouble with, however, was the camera — he always seemed to be a natural, especially when, as was often the case, the setting of the film was the Australian wilds. As he put it in an autobiographical one-man stage show he performed in 2004, “I know how to walk across the land in front of a camera, because I belong there.”

David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu is believed to have been born in 1953 in Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory. Missionaries are said to have assigned him a birth date of July 1.

He was also assigned the name David at a government-run English school that he attended for a time.

“They asked me what was my name,” he said in a 1978 audio interview posted by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, “and I said, ‘My name is Gulpilil,’ and suddenly they said, ‘Ah, yeah, we’ll give you David.’ ”

He didn’t care for the school and its paternalism — “You got your culture, I got my culture,” he said — and instead cultivated a reputation as an excellent ceremonial dancer. His fluidity and love of performing caught the attention of British director Nicolas Roeg when Roeg came to Australia looking for an Aboriginal youth for “Walkabout,” a story about two white children lost in the wilderness who are befriended by an Indigenous teenager. (Few Aboriginal actors had appeared in feature films at the time, although documentarians had visited Indigenous communities.)

The film led to international travel. Gulpilil, who was also a musician, used to tell the story of having his room at Cannes invaded by firefighters, who couldn’t place the sounds he was making on his didgeridoo — a traditional wooden instrument — and thought they might be the rumblings of a fire.

Several television roles followed “Walkabout,” and then in 1976 Gulpilil was back on the big screen in “Mad Dog Morgan,” a drama about an Irish outlaw (played by Dennis Hopper) who is a wanted man in Australia. Soon after came “Storm Boy,” in which he played an Aboriginal man who befriends a lonely boy and joins with him in raising some pelicans.

Gulpilil reached a much wider audience when he appeared in “Crocodile Dundee.” As a friend of Paul Hogan’s swashbuckling title character, he delivers one particularly good joke after his character meets a New York journalist played by Linda Kozlowski. She immediately tries to take his picture.

“You can’t take my photograph,” he says.

“I’m sorry,” she answers. “You believe it’ll take your spirit away.”

“No,” he says. “You’ve got the lens cap on.”

Gulpilil was especially proud of his work in “The Tracker” (2002), one of several films he made with de Heer. He played the title character, who leads several white men on a brutal journey in search of a fugitive.

“As he has in other Australian films, including ‘Walkabout,’ ‘The Last Wave’ and ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence,’ Mr. Gulpilil has the mystical aura of a man so profoundly in touch with the earth that he is omniscient and safe from harm,” Stephen Holden wrote in his review in The New York Times.

His most acclaimed role came in “Charlie’s Country,” another project directed by de Heer; the two men share the screenwriting credit. The movie is about an Aboriginal man struggling to maintain traditional ways. Parts of it were drawn from Gulpilil’s own life. He and de Heer began developing the story while Gulpilil, struggling with alcohol at the time, was in jail for breaking his wife’s arm.

His performance won the best-actor award in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes festival.

Gulpilil was married several times. He is survived by an extensive family, including seven children.

De Heer, in an interview with The Herald Sun of Australia shortly after Gulpilil won the acting award at Cannes, talked about the pressures his friend felt living in the traditional Indigenous world and in the world that included places like Cannes.

“He struggles in both,” he said. “He’ll say he can live in both cultures, but I don’t think he does well in either.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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