David Gulpilil, the internationally known Aboriginal actor and writer known for his highly nuanced performance in “Harry Brown,” died in Sydney on Monday. He was 68.
Gulpilil began his career in the English film industry with supporting roles in “The Sand Pebbles” (1976) and “Don King: Only in America” (1978), then moved to Australia in 1978. He quickly became well-known in the Australian theater scene for his role in the off-Broadway production of “The Glorious Ones” in 1984. Later that year, Gulpilil won the Best Actor award at the prestigious Humana Awards, which promotes excellence in theater and filmmaking.
In 1987, Gulpilil starred in “Harry Brown,” based on James McClelland’s novel of the same name, directed by Neil Jordan and written by Damien Odell. The Western-style murder mystery was notable for its bleak portrayal of Indigenous people in Australia and highly praised for its performances.
Gulpilil played Murray, an alcoholic vaudeville performer whose dying wish is to rescue a woman whose young son has been kidnapped by the murderer of his wife. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Murray comforts the woman and comforts her screaming child in a house of barbed wire and staged fear.
Three years later, Gulpilil was still on the New York City stage. At the landmark Drama Center on the Lower East Side, Gulpilil starred in the premiere of a play titled “Just Like Yesterday,” by Don McKellar. He appeared opposite veterans Mary Beth Hurt and Max von Sydow.
In the late 1980s, Gulpilil re-ignited his movie career with the critically acclaimed, alcoholic character study “Wonderland.” His performance in the film earned him three Australian Film Institute Award nominations for Best Lead Actor.
But after a successful series of roles in Australian feature films, Gulpilil fell to 21st in his career. He said the accolades from audiences made it difficult to explore roles he found equally compelling. In an interview with Interview magazine in 2004, he said he was “burned out” and longed for the time when he was making a variety of critically acclaimed works.
“So many Australian films are often so hard to watch because they really are just trying to milk a genre rather than produce something that we all think is fine. Even if it’s made by a great filmmaker, it’s been made, I suppose, to grab a cheque,” he said.
Gulpilil said that over the years he became used to being recognized only by Aboriginal film buffs, and he didn’t suffer from heart disease or diabetes.
“I had moved forward somewhat, but unfortunately that was enough,” he said.