Bill Hunter, the big Australian

Vale William John “Bill” Hunter,  1940 – 2011

Bill Hunter, Mel Gibson & William Anderson at the AFI Awards in 1981

Bill Hunter, Mel Gibson and William Anderson at the AFI Awards in 1981, where Hunter won Best Actor in a Supporting Role for 'Gallipoli'.

“(Acting) is a job. It is a craft, but there’s no art involved. Anyone who says there’s any more to it than that, is full of bullshit. That upsets the purists but never mind, they don’t work as much as I do.” – Bill Hunter

The Australian Film Institute mourns the loss of AFI Award winning actor Bill Hunter on Saturday 21 May 2011. He was aged 71. AFI Chair Alan Finney says: “It was my honour to work with Bill Hunter on many films and whether big or modest productions, he was always a professional.  His passion for our Industry and his strong personality has made him a powerful influence on us all. He played a most significant part in the success and credibility of our films over many years.”

Here Sarah Finney remembers and celebrates a great actor and a mate to many.

A stalwart of the Australian screen, Bill Hunter appeared in over 100 film and television productions over the past fifty years.

One of Australia’s greatest actors, Bill Hunter personified the Australian character. In a prolific career he starred in some of Australia’s most celebrated films and television series, creating some of the Australian screen’s most enduring and iconic characters.

While younger audiences will be most familiar with Bill Hunter from his roles in Strictly Ballroom, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding, Hunter got his start in 1959 with a small role in Stanley Kramer’s adaptation of Nevil Shute’s classic novel On the Beach which starred Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire and Ava Gardner.

Hunter then appeared in a number of TV series in the 1960s and early 1970s, most notably Spyforce, Division 4, Homicide and later Prisoner (1979).

At the forefront of the Renaissance

Hunter was at the forefront of the Australian cinema renaissance, appearing in Esben Storm’s 27A (one of his first leading roles), The Man from Hong Kong, Eliza Fraser, Mad Dog Morgan (his first AFI Award nominated performance), Backroads and In Search of Anna before taking on the role that would make him a star.

In 1978, Hunter played the starring role of Len Maguire in Philip Noyce’s Newsfront. Newsfront is set in the late 1940s and follows Cinetone newsreel cameraman Len and his colleagues during a time of great political and social change in Australia. Considered by many to be Australia’s finest film, Newsfront won 8 AFI Awards that year including Best Film. Hunter received his second AFI Award nomination and first win for Best Actor in a Lead Role.

Hunter went straight back to work, appearing in Hard Knocks (1980) and …Maybe This Time (1981).

Hunter soon followed up Newsfront with a pivotal role in another iconic Australian film Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981). Hunter played Major Barton, appearing in perhaps the most memorable final scene in Australian film history, for which he won his third AFI Award nomination and second win for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

Gallipoli was followed by a string of film and television roles including Far East and he teamed up again with director Philip Noyce on Heatwave and The Dismissal. The Dismissal heralded the era of the great Australian mini-series and Hunter went onto appear in many of them including Scales of Justice, The Last Bastion, Eureka Stockade and A Fortunate Life. (Indeed it was this flourishing of television production in the early 1980s that led to the establishment of the AFI Awards for Television in 1986. In 1989 Hunter starred in the telemovie Police State, receiving his fourth AFI nomination and third win, for Best Lead Actor in a Telefeature that same year. Around this time Hunter was also in Rikky & Pete and Mull. Next came Esben Storm’s Deadly, mini-series The Leaving of Liverpool, Phoenix and Police Rescue.

A beloved fixture in the 1990s

In 1992 Hunter appeared in two of the most high profile Australian films that year, Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous (for which he was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role) and Baz Lurhmann’s Strictly Ballroom.

Hunter was next seen in Broken Highway, Shotgun Wedding, The Custodian and mini-series Stark. Hunter then shot two films back-to-back, Stephan Elliott’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and P.J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding. For some it’s the ABBA songs and similar ‘grotesque’ style that links these two films. For me it is Bill Hunter. In Priscilla, he played mechanic Bob, a fair dinkum Aussie bloke eking out an existence in the Outback. In Muriel’s Wedding, Bill played Bill Heslop, the big man in a small town who has little time for his wife and children.

Not surprisingly, Bill Hunter was again nominated for an AFI Award for his performance in Muriel’s Wedding. (The 1994 AFI Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role went to Hunter’s contemporary Max Cullen for Spider & Rose.)

As always, Hunter continued to work in film and television. He appeared in Blue Murder, Everynight… Everynight, River Street, Frontier, Road to Nhill, SeaChange and The Violent Earth to name a few.

Fittingly Hunter appeared in Russell Mulcahy’s television remake of On the Beach, in the small role of Prime Minister Smeaton.

The voice behind the face

In 2003 Hunter starred in Crackerjack, Bad Eggs and Horseplay and was one of the few Australian actors to ‘be heard’ in Pixar’s Finding Nemo.

Indeed, if Hunter is one of the most recognisable faces of the Australian screen, he is also without a doubt one of Australia’s most recognisable voices. Over the years Hunter has lent himself to many an advertising campaign, most famously as the face of BHP ‘the Big Australian’, the Keating Government’s Working Nation campaign, ALP campaigns and most recently for the AFL.

More film and television roles followed throughout the 2000s notably Tom White, The Square, Australia, The Pacific and most recently he lent his voice to the animated feature Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.

And we haven’t seen the last of his roles…

Hunter will be next seen in the soon to be released Kriv Stenders’ Red Dog, Simon Wincer’s The Cup (playing another legend, trainer Bart Cummings) and Amanda Jane’s The Wedding Party.

Hunter’s contribution to the Australian film and television industry was immeasurable. Constantly working, Hunter was one of the country’s most in demand  actors. A big man with a big heart, he will be greatly missed.

Bill was a big man with a big heart and he was a natural storyteller. I grew up watching him on screen, where he embodied the Australian character. I was privileged to know him a little. Under that gruff, sometimes intimidating exterior, he was warm, funny and kind. Hooroo Mate.

Sarah Finney

AFI Awards Note: To date, Hunter has won 3 AFI Awards and been nominated 6 times.

To see clips of Bill Hunter’s work on screen, visit this excellent collection on Australia Screen, the NFSA’s online resource.

A full list of Bill Hunter’s credits can be found here on IMDB

A memorial service for Bill Hunter will be held at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre on Thursday 26 May at 2pm.

Do you remember Bill Hunter, personally, professionally or just as a film and television watcher? The AFI welcomes your anecdotes, comments and thoughts below this post.

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