Film and TV

Internationally acclaimed actor David Gulpilil dead at 68

David Gulpilil, internationally acclaimed actor and cultural icon, has died at 68 after a long battle with lung cancer.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains the image, voice, and name of a person who has died.

David Gulpilil of the Mandhalpuyngu clan in Arnhem Land spent his last years battling lung cancer, in the care of his friend Mary Hood in Murray Bridge, South Australia.

Photo: Emma Masters, ABC News

Gulpilil will be remembered for his influential career in Australian cinema, starring in some of our most culturally significant films, such as Rabbit-Proof Fence, Storm Boy, and The Last Wave. Also a mesmerising dancer and skilful painter, his contributions to Australia’s cultural landscape cannot be understated.

Gulpilil’s early days were spent out in the bush, hunting, dancing, and studying at the Maningrida school. He was hailed as the greatest traditional dancer in the Arnhem Land community of Maningrida when he was only a teenager.

A long, dynamic career in film

His acting career began in the late ’60s when he was chosen by British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg to play a key role in Walkabout, his avant-garde movie set in Australia’s outback.

He went on to play Fingerbone Bill in 1976’s Storm Boy. The film saw him teach his traditional knowledge to a young South Australian boy in Coorong, and Gulpilil’s loveable character captivated Australia’s schoolchildren for decades.

Crocodile Dundee garnered international success, with David Gulpilil starring as Neville Bell. Famously, he later denounced the movie, calling it “bullshit”.

Gulpilil perfectly executed a powerful performance in the unforgettable role of Moodoo in Rabbit-Proof Fence, a state-sponsored tracker responsible for finding the three Stolen Generation girls who had escaped from a settlement.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)

Then in 2008, Gulpilil outshone as Aboriginal elder King George in Baz Luhrmann’s internally garnered Australia. He also went on to star in Rolf de Heer’s critically acclaimed outback dramas The Tracker, Ten Canoes, and Charlie’s Country.

A long and winding career in film has garnered David Gulpilil with a vast amount of deserved awards and recognitions. He received the AACTA/AFI Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role twice; for both 2002’s The Tracker, and 2014’s Charlie’s Country.

In 2019, Gulpilil was also honoured at the NAIDOC Awards with the Lifetime Achievement Award, which his daughters accepted on his behalf.

“I will still remember you even though I am now gone forever”

During his final years, rumours of lung cancer circulated as Gulpilil’s poor health forced him to pull out of movie roles – he was originally set to star in Stephen Johnson’s outback epic High Ground.

In a recorded acceptance speech, David Gulpilil confirmed that he was dying from lung cancer. “To everyone, thank you for watching me… I will still remember you even though I am now gone forever,” he lovingly voiced in the video.

David Gulpilil’s impact on Australia’s cultural landscape has been significant. From his earnest and inventive roles in Australian cinema to revealing the powerful, rich culture of Aboriginal Australia to the international stage, his influence will be long lasting and ever praised.