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David Dalaithngu, better known as David Gulpilil, who has died probably aged 68, became Australia’s most famous Aboriginal actor after being cast by the British director Nicolas Roeg in his classic 1971 Outback drama, Walkabout.
The 15-year-old Gulpilil’s magnetic debut performance as an Aboriginal boy wandering the Outback as part of a tribal rite of passage, who comes to the aid of two stranded city siblings (Jenny Agutter and the director’s son Luc Roeg), established him as an actor whose physical dignity and gift for lingering silence evoked the sadness of a vanishing way of life.
Four years later in Storm Boy (1976), based on Colin Thiele’s novel of the same name, he won audience hearts, and an Australian Film Institute award nomination, with his portrayal of an Aboriginal man estranged from his people who befriends a young European Australian boy (Greg Rowe).
Gulpilil made his mark with international audiences in the 1986 blockbuster Crocodile Dundee as Mick Dundee’s (Paul Hogan’s) drily humorous bushwalking friend “Nev” Bell. He went on to star in Philip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) as a tracker looking for three children who escape from captivity in a “Native Settlement”, and Baz Luhrmann’s epic Australia (2008), in which he starred alongside Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman as a tribal elder.
Gulpilil sought to strike a balance between living as his ancestors did and using film to tell their story, but the strain of trying to bridge the cultural gap led to a long struggle with alcohol and depression.
But that strain also informed a critically acclaimed collaboration with the arthouse film director Rolf de Heer, beginning with The Tracker (2002), in which Gulpilil drew on his own background as one of the Indigenous men once employed by Australian police as trackers of fugitives in the Outback. His performance won him the Best Actor prize at the Cinemanila International Film Festival.
Their collaboration continued with Ten Canoes (2006), a mythic tale – ravishingly filmed in collaboration with Gulpilil’s own community of Ramingining, Arnhem Land, in Northern Territory – which conveyed the often ribald oral tradition of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, challenging common stereotypes.
It won best film in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes but, as de Heer recalled, during the making of the film, Gulpilil, whose idea the film had been (and who had been a co-director in the early stages), became estranged from his community for mysterious reasons.
“David left Ramingining and is living in the long grass in Darwin – long grass is being homeless,” de Heer explained in a 2007 interview. “When he left, he scurried out of there real fast because he was afraid of getting speared.” Although there was a partial reconciliation, and community members agreed to let Gulpilil do the voiceover, it seemed that the issue, whatever it was, was never fully resolved.
Gulpilil had by this time had several brushes with the law for offences related to alcohol and in 2011 he was jailed for assault after breaking his partner’s arm in a drunken attack.
His next film with de Heer, Charlie’s Country (2014), a tragicomic semi-autobiographical saga starring Gulpilil as an Aboriginal man trying to return to his roots, drew on his battles with alcohol and the law, the pair working on casting and screenplay at the Northern Territory jail where Gulpilil was serving time. His performance won him the Best Actor prize from the Un Certain Regard jury at Cannes.
“I’ve travelled all over the world,” Gulpilil wrote in 2006. “I’ve met many famous people... I went to London and Buckingham Palace; I’ve partied with John Lennon and I met Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix... I went to Hollywood, met Jack Nicholson, Muhammad Ali, Clint Eastwood, Bob Dylan and John Denver.”
But, he admitted, “it’s been difficult sometimes ... because I was always thinking about going back to my father’s land... My roots are in my father and mother’s land in Arnhem Land.”
Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu was born into the Yolngu people, a nomadic Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land; he did not meet a European Australian until he was eight years old. His date of birth, July 1 1953, was recorded by local missionaries based on guesswork, while the name David was foisted upon him at school.
By his mid-teens Gulpilil had established himself as an accomplished tracker, hunter and ceremonial dancer – skills that in 1969 brought him to the attention of Nicolas Roeg, who was in the Northern Territory scouting for filming locations.
His acting career led to almost unimaginable changes in his life. When Walkabout was screened at Buckingham Palace the teenage actor, clad in traditional loincloth and holding a spear, walked the red carpet to meet the Queen.
Aged 22, he had third billing in Mad Dog Morgan (1976), whose roustabout star Dennis Hopper introduced him to alcohol and drugs. Other credits included The Last Wave (1977), and The Proposition (2005).
Despite his acting successes, Gulpilil, who was appointed to the Order of Australia in 1987, was often broke, possibly because wealth in Australian Indigenous society is communal.
He used his time in prison to wean himself off his addictions and afterwards moved to Murray Bridge, South Australia, with a carer.
Gulpilil was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017 but lived long enough to attend the premiere of My Name is Gulpilil (2021), directed by Molly Reynolds, in which he told his own story.
Gulpilil had several wives or partners over the years and is survived by seven children. After his death his family asked for him to be referred to as David Dalaithngu.
David Dalaithngu (aka Gulpilil), born July 1 1953, died November 29 2021