‘Crocodile Dundee’ actor David Gulpilil, indigenous legend, dead at 68


David Gulpilil, the legendary indigenous Australian actor who earned international acclaim in Paul Hogan’s “Crocodile Dundee” and Rolf de Heer’s “Charlie’s Country,” has died after a four-year battle with lung cancer. He was 68.

The award-winning thespian’s passing was announced Monday via a statement by South Australian Premier Steven Marshall: “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).”

Born on July 1, 1953, Gulpilil was raised in the bush and never went to school. He often said he learned English by listening.

“That’s all I know, dancing, singing, spear-throwing and hunting,” he recalled in a 2015 interview, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “My father gave me a spear and said make sure you come back, the spear is life.”

Actor David Gulpili at home in Arnhem Land with his dog, Rocky. Taken 17 April 1998.
Gulpili at home in Arnhem Land with his dog, Rocky, in 1998. “To everyone, thank you for watching me … never forget me while I am here,” he said while accepting a lifetime achievement award in 2019. “I will never forget you. I will still remember you even though it won’t go on forever. I will still remember.”
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He was discovered at 16 when Brit auteur filmmaker Nicholas Roeg spotted him performing a traditional ceremonial dance — and cast him in 1971’s “Walkabout.” The cult hit told the tale of two city-bred siblings stranded in the outback, where they learn to survive with the aid of an Aboriginal boy on his ritual “walkabout” separation from his tribe.

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He went on to make an indelible impression during Australia’s cinematic “New Wave” era with naturalistic performances in a trio of films from 1976 and 1977: “Mad Dog Morgan” opposite Dennis Hopper, the children’s classic “Storm Boy” and Peter Weir’s acclaimed “The Last Wave,” with Richard Chamberlain.

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Gulpilil is perhaps best-known to mass audiences for 1986’s “Crocodile Dundee,” Australia’s top-grossing film and a major blockbuster in the US. He stole scenes as the dryly witty Neville Bell, an indigenous Australian who encounters Paul Hogan’s Mick Dundee in the bush.

His legendary line: When Bell tells journalist Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski) she can’t take his photograph, she responds, “I’m sorry — you believe it will take your spirit away?”

“No,” Gulpilil’s Bell replies, “You’ve got the lens cap on.”

Within a year of being crowned an international film star, he was awarded the A.M. (Member of the Order of Australia) in the 1987 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for “services to the arts through the interpretation of Aboriginal culture.”

Gulpilil strikes a dapper pose in 2005.
Gulpilil strikes a dapper pose in 2005.
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He earned a best-supporting actor nomination in 2002 from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards for his performance as a tracker pursuing three children who escape government-enforced servitude in Philip Noyce’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence.”

He later appeared opposite Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann’s epic 2008 flop “Australia,” before hitting hard times and temporarily dropping off the cinematic radar.

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After years of struggle and a stint behind bars for aggravated assault, filmmaker Rolf de Heer visited Gulpilil in jail. Shocked by the conditions his former colleague was living in — the director offered professional motivation for the actor upon his release.

It would result in what many consider the role of his career: Gulpilil won the Un Certain Regard best actor prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for his haunting performance in 2013’s “Charlie Country,” which he co-wrote with de Heer and starred in as an aging man wanting to retreat to his Aboriginal cultural roots.

In July 2019, Gulpilil received the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee lifetime achievement award. He revealed in a prerecorded message that he had been battling lung cancer since 2017.

“To everyone, thank you for watching me … never forget me while I am here,” he said at the time. “I will never forget you. I will still remember you even though it won’t go on forever. I will still remember.”

He is survived by his wife Miriam Ashley and son Jamie Gulpilil. A new documentary about his life, “My Name is Gulpilil,” premiered in September.

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