Hunter, the gatherer

Date: 20/11/1994

Author: Doug Aiton

Bill Hunter left school at 13 to go droving. He earned his first break as a stuntman in `On The Beach' and since then, he has been in more than 50 Australian movies.

THERE'S a scene towards the end of Peter Weir's `Gallipoli' which I find one of the most moving in any Australian film.

The major is in his tent having received orders to send his young men over the top to what he knows is their certain death. It is night time, and the attack takes place tomorrow.

The major opens a bottle of champagne and puts a record on the portable gramophone. Out comes a crackly version of the famous duet from Bizet's `The Pearl Fishers'. While sipping the champagne, the major whistles along with the song.

That's all. The scene fades and the next day the young men go over the top and are gunned down.

It is a scene of exquisite power, melancholy, despair and tragedy. But it would not have come off had it not been for the restraint and delicacy displayed by Bill Hunter, who plays the major.

Bill Hunter has been in so many of the very best Australian movies. I particularly remember him in Phil Noyce's `Newsfront', back in the 1970s; `Gallipoli'; the television series `The Dismissal' (where he played Rex Connor), and a wonderful early movie of Phil Noyce called `Back Roads' , a gritty and real outback drama which more accurately than anything I've seen depicts the relationship between white fellas and black fellas. The white fella is Bill Hunter. The black fella is Gary Foley. It's a great pity that the movie is more or less extinct.

In more recent times, Hunter has had pivotal roles in three significant successes: `Strictly Ballroom', `Muriel's Wedding', and `The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert'. Overall he has appeared in about 50 Australian movies and qualifies, by my measure, as our very finest.

We met for lunch on a Sunday in Little Bourke Street. He came in looking cheerful and expansive as always, and exactly the same as he looks on the screen. He told me he is now 54. I wouldn't have been surprised if he had said 64, or 44.

``You never seem to go out of fashion," I said.

``Well, I'll always have a rough head. You can't do much with it. In `The Dismissal', Rex Connor was supposed to be 70. That must be at least 10 years ago, mustn't it? Having this dial works for me. It's a pretty utility sort of head. It gives me a range. As long as you back it up with technical ability and a certain amount of emotion."

I've known Bill Hunter a little over the past 10 years or so. He used to often be found in the Cricketers' Bar at The Windsor. These days he lives in an apartment in Bondi Junction with his wife of three years, Rhoda Roberts, who is the host of the SBS program `Vox Populi'.

I've always had the impression that Bill leads a life that is fairly turbulent, or at least, he has in the past. He doesn't like to talk about it too much, but let's just say that this is not his first marriage, and he has never been attracted to teetotalism. He is terrific company, full of thoughtful and amusing observations, and he never forgets anyone's name. At the moment he looks terrific, a bit slimmer than usual, and he says his very happy marriage has been soothing.

``What's your favorite performance of your own?" I asked.

``There are performances I have got away with," he began. He often puts things like that, as though he is really not very talented at all but has managed to fool people that he is. ``They tend to coincide with the ones that got me the most acclaim. There's a lot in between.

On the other hand, you're told that you were great in things you know you were shitty in. But you're not gonna tell them, are you."

``Well, what are your favorite memories of making movies?" I tried.

``I THINK `Newsfront' and `The Hit', for various reasons." (`The Hit' was an English film he made with Terence Stamp about 10 years ago. He is pleased that Stamp agreed to play the role only if Bill Hunter agreed to play the other role.) ``There are various reasons for both. When we were making `The Hit', Chris Hayward and I did some outrageous things."

``Like what?" ``Well, we hired a limo. I mean, we were hardly being paid what you need to hire a limo. But we did, and we turned up in it every day. We had a bootful of booze and a lot of pretty sheilas. This is going to get me into trouble, isn't it."

They were in Spain. Terence Stamp and John Hurt were great fans of a certain bullfighter (whose name Bill can't remember). One day, Bill had the day off, so he sat in a bar, and in walked the bullfighter.

``By the time they came off the set, we were pissed. So I was able to introduce them to their god."

He also remembers when they started filming `Back Roads' in the outback. Hunter had known Gary Foley for some time, but director Phil Noyce did not know this. On the first day, Hunter walked up to Noyce in front of Foley and said: ``I'm not gonna work with that black bastard".

``Noyce," said Hunter, with barely a grin, ``was shitting himself."

``It looked pretty authentic, that movie," I said. It was Gary Foley who lent me his video about a year or so ago. Otherwise I would never have seen it.

A lot of Hunter's earthiness on the screen is made possible by his background, I suspect. He is not a middle class person, not a person who transports himself into people of different background in order to act, not a product of NIDA or any other drama school.

In short, he was born in Fitzroy, spent a lot of his childhood in country Victoria where his father had pubs, went to 13 schools by the time he was 13 years old, at which point he quit school. It's a pretty rough start, but he loved it.

``We came back to Fitzroy when dad had gone broke in bush pubs. Oh, they were at Ballarat, Donald, St Arnaud, Wycheproof, Warracknabeal."

``What was your dad's name?" ``Bill."

``Tell me about him."

``He was a man of great courage. He had a wonderful attitude to life, and he died at 53. After he went broke, he got an old push bike and went back to what he knew. He became a sign writer, pedalling his bike down Sydney Road, Brunswick."

Bill junior, after he left school at 13, went droving. His dad had the North Star Hotel in Ballarat and there was a character who hung about called Tim Frood who had a horse and wagon and lived somewhere on the edge of town with his wife and 11 children.

``I used to go droving with him for weeks at a time. I had some horses of my own, and some cattle. It became apparent to dad that I wasn't going to be an academic, so he let me have my head."

``You put your own talent down a lot," I said. ``But yours is a talent that reminds me of Robert Mitchum. That is, you just get in front of the camera and let it happen, and it works like a dream."

``Well, you can't do anyone else until you can do yourself. When you get that down, you can start to be idiosyncratic, put on a few frills.

``To a large extent, you can tell the actors who have grown up `actors'. You get no spark from them."

``Who are the great screen actors?" ``There are few of the calibre of John Hurt. He has great technique.

And having said what I just said, he went through RADA." (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.) ``He would have made it anyway. He has the technique and the emotional range. Most have one or the other.

The really good ones have both."

Bill did the usual thing when he was in his 20s. He went to London and ended up with Nottingham Repertory. He particularly remembers working with the legendary British actor Bernard Lee, who is most remembered now as the cockney corporal in `The Third Man', and later as `M' in several of the James Bond movies.

``When you work with Lee and Trevor Howard, you get rid of a lot of wrinkles. I also knew Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp, David Warner, Judi Dench.

``I did nearly a year with Nottingham Rep., performing one while rehearsing another. Peter Ustinov and John Neville were the artistic directors."

He arrived there because while he was hanging out in London someone told him that Nottingham Repertory had a place. At the time, Bill had ninepence ha'penny to his name. He put on a sweater and hitchhiked to Nottingham.

John Neville took him out for coffee and said ``you're a day late".

``I said, oh f... it! Neville then guaranteed me a job if I came back a year later. He went, and I sat there with my cup of coffee for a while. Then the waiter brought me 50 quid in an envelope. He said Mr Neville had sent it. I reminded Neville of this when I saw him recently, and he denied it."

``Why did you leave England?" ``Dad was dying. I got back just in time to hold his hand. At one time he had the attitude `no son of mine is going to be a poofter actor'.

But then the first time I was on television, he was the greatest skite in town. Skite. There's a word you don't hear very often now."

``So you got back in time?" ``I walked in and he said, I knew you'd come. He died a few hours later."

``He was hanging on," I said.

``OH MATE, my mother died on my sister's birthday. My sister was the first child. It makes sense to me."

What did you learn from your dad?" ``A certain attitude, I think. Walk up to a man, stick your mitt out and look him in the eye."

``And what did you learn from your mother?" ``Everything I know. I grew up to respect women. I'm one of those blokes who stands up when a woman comes into the room. I open doors for 'em. These days I'd be called sexist. I suppose now I'm in more trouble. Too bad."

Earlier on, Bill's career as an actor began around 1959, when he managed to get a job on the set of `On The Beach', then being shot in Melbourne.

``I did stunts for Anthony Perkins and Gregory Peck."

Recently he was invited to host a Nine Network special on movies. They wanted him to say ``Hi, I'm Bill Hunter."

``I changed it to `G'day, I'm Bill Hunter'. Then they wanted me to say that I was `lucky' to have been in these films. I wouldn't say that either. I wasn't lucky. I deserved it."

``So what did you change it to?" Mid swig of beer, he paused. ``Privileged."

Bill is very proud of his wife, Rhoda, who is nearly 20 years younger.

He first met her when she was six.

``I was with an Aboriginal friend called Garry Williams, knocking around the bush. We were at Bundjalung, in northern New South Wales.

Williams said, there's a bloke I want you to meet. We were a bit worse for wear. Then a big black bloke came out of the house and offered his mitt. His name was Frank Roberts. And his two twin six-year-old girls were dancing naked under the sprinkler. I met her again years later when I'd seen her on television. I didn't know then that she'd been one of the girls under the sprinkler years ago."

``That scene in Gallipoli," I said. ``How did it come about that you whistled that part ..."

``I said to Weir that I'd do the scene twice. The first time I'd whistle it, then I'd sing it. So I did the first one. Then I said, now do you want me to sing it? And Weir said, no, no, that's a wrap everybody."

``What exactly were you doing in that scene?" ``I was being ... fatalistic. It was a very dangerous scene."

``Why?" ``It could have been mawkish."