David Gulpilil, a star of classics such as Crocodile Dundee and Australia, has died at 68-years old. The indigenous Australian fought lung cancer for the past four years, and his death was felt across the continent.
Since 1971, Gulpilil has been a fixture of the Australian film industry. In fact, he starred in two of the top three highest-grossing Australian movies ever—Crocodile Dundee and Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. In 2013, David Gulpilil co-wrote and starred as Charlie in Charlie’s Country. The movie earned him the Un Certain Regard best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Gulpilil’s death truly did hit the people of Australia hard. South Australian Premier Steven Marshall issued a statement Monday mourning Gulpilil’s loss. He called him an “iconic” artist.
“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 – David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu (AM),” said Marshall, per The Hollywood Reporter.
David Gulpilil’s 50 Year Acting Career
For David Gulpilil, an indigenous Australian born in the bush of the Northern Territory, a decades-long acting career was unlikely. During an interview with the Wheeler Centre in 2015, Gulpilil described his upbringing.
“That’s all I know, dancing, singing, spear-throwing, and hunting. My father gave me a spear and said, ‘make sure you come back. The spear is life,'” Gulpilil told Margaret Pomeranz.
Unlikely as it seemed, David Gulpilil picked up English simply by hearing it spoken, and in 1971, landed a role in Walkabout. He played a character called Black Boy, who saved two white children when they got lost in the bush.
Through the 1970s, he continued working, landing mostly television roles. One exception came in 1976 when he starred as Billy opposite Dennis Hopper in Mad Dog Morgan. In 1986, he starred in Crocodile Dundee, which became a huge success in the United States.
The 2000s proved prolific for David Gulpilil. In a four-year period from 2002 to 2006, he starred in Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Tracker, The Proposition, and Ten Canoes.
The ‘Australia’ Star Was a Pioneer
It’s important to keep in mind that until 1967, indigenous Australians didn’t enjoy full rights as citizens and suffered discrimination.
Famed Dutch Australian director Rolf de Heer, who worked with Gulpilil on titles such as The Tracker, Ten Canoes, and Charlie’s Country, credited Gulpilil with normalizing indigenous actors in Australian filmmaking.
“David’s early performances made writers and producers and directors believe it was possible to have great aboriginal characters of interest to broad audiences,” said de Heer.
Beyond just landing roles, however, David Gulpilil became something of a sex symbol. Jack Thompson, a frequent co-star of the late star, said that he’d never seen an indigenous Australian presented as sexually attractive until Gulpilil came along.