David Dalaithngu, a titanic force in Australian cinema, dies after lung cancer diagnosis

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<span>Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AP</span>
Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AP

The Indigenous actor, who was in his late 60s when he died, helped shape the history of Australian film

Indigenous actor David Dalaithngu, one of Australia’s greatest artists, has died four years after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“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” the South Australian premier, Steven Marshall, said in a statement on Monday night.

Dalaithngu was from the Mandhalpingu clan of the Yolŋu people and raised in Arnhem land. In his later years, he was a resident of Murray Bridge south-east of Adelaide.

“An actor, dancer, singer and painter, he was also one of the greatest artists Australia has ever seen,” the premier said.

Dalaithngu made his name in the 1971 movie Walkabout and 1976’s Storm Boy. He was described in a recent Guardian review as a “titanic force in Australian cinema”.

Related: David Dalaithngu obituary: Walkabout star a ‘consummate actor’ who helped reinvent Australian film

Marshall said Dalaithngu’s life was not without struggles. “He encountered racism and discrimination and lived with the pressures of the divide between his traditional lifestyle and his public profile,” the premier said.

Dalaithngu’s last film was a documentary about his own life, directed by Molly Reynolds, which was released earlier this year.

The actor was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017 and the SA premier said he wasn’t expected to survive the film’s shooting. “Yet it was no surprise to anyone that he was front and centre on opening night, where he would receive his final standing ovation.”

The Guardian’s five-star review of the film noted people in the entertainment industry spoke about performers having the “it” factor, but “nobody in the world has ever had ‘it’ quite like the great Yolŋu actor David [Dalaithngu]”.

“Reynolds understands that [he] isn’t just a great actor but a portal to a different way of thinking, a different way of being, even a different state of consciousness,” Luke Buckmaster wrote in March. “If you think that sounds like hyperbole, you have not seen a David [Dalaithngu] movie.”

Dalaithngu’s acting career spanned 50 years. His films included The Last Wave, Crocodile Dundee, The Tracker, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country.

His family have asked for his previous name to not be used for the time being, in accordance with traditional Yolngu bereavement practices.

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