In praise of Bill Hunter

When cinema-goers asked, "Haven't I seen that bloke in something before?", the answer with the Australian actor Bill Hunter was almost invariably, "Yes".

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Image caption Bill Hunter didn't take himself or his art too seriously

And while not everyone would have necessarily known his name, many film-lovers around the world would instantly have recognized that gnarled and often whiskery face. Sadly, he died of cancer over the weekend at the age of 71.

Growing up, I thought that Australian television relied pretty much on a 12-person talent pool: a revolving cast that moved from the waiting room of The Country Practice to the kitchen table of The Sullivans before launching into a mid-afternoon pub crawl that took in drinks at Bunny's Place and Happy Hour at Lassiter's. Then, of course, they would clock on for the nightshift at Wentworth Prison, the home of Prisoner Cell Block H.

Australian cinema felt much the same, and there would be something seriously amiss if the name "Bill Hunter" did not appear in the credits.

So he was the father of the bride in Muriel's Wedding, the Outback mechanic in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the dancing judge in Strictly Ballroom (where he performed a double act with one of the most extravagant toupees in cinematic history), and even the voice of the dentist in Finding Nemo.

Admittedly, he made only a fleeting appearance in Baz Luhrmann's Australia, but the notion of making the film without him was not only unthinkable but heretical. Here, then, he performed the role almost of mascot.

Australians had a lot of reasons to like Bill Hunter. For a start, he brought to lustrous life one of the country's great archetypes: the cranky but loveable down-to-earth Aussie bloke.

Even better, he did not take himself very seriously. Asked about his philosophy towards acting, he described what he did as a job and a craft rather than an art: "Anyone who says there's any more to it than that is full of bullshit."

He was also a key figure in the renaissance of Australian cinema - and here his starring role in the 1978 film Newsfront was particularly noteworthy. As Prime Minister Julia Gillard noted in her eulogy: "He told us Australian stories in an Australian voice at a time when we were debating and developing our sense of national identity."

Moreover, he stayed in Australia, rather than trying to conquer Hollywood, and could therefore never be accused of betrayal or getting above himself.

Though perhaps best remembered for his comic roles, Bill Hunter was featured in what is arguably Australia's most culturally significant film: Peter Weir's Gallipoli. Here he was quite brilliant as the Australian commanding officer traumatized by the thought of ordering young Australian diggers out of the trenches, over the top and on to their near certain death. Few films, if any, have done more to nurture Australian nationalism than Gallipoli, and here he appeared as a patriot rather than as an archetype.

The writer and political commentator, Bob Ellis, who knew him well, has written a fine piece which offers a rich portrait of his character: But one thing that everyone will surely agree on is that the death of Bill Hunter leaves a huge void in Australian cinema, not to mention a gap in the Rolodexes of local casting directors.

PS Staying with the subject of the portrayal of Australia in film and television, there seems to be a speedy re-evaluation underway of Chris Lilley's Angry Boys. In episode two, Lilley introduced us to the US rapper S. Mouse. But many people think he should stick to parodying Australian characters and that he's nowhere near as sure-footed when taking on America. It's a persuasive argument. I suspect one of the reasons why Lilley is so popular is because his work is packed with so many in-jokes. They mean his work has appeal abroad, but is only fully understood locally. One of his pet guinea pigs, for instance, is named Kerry-Anne, which will not mean anything to non-Australians beyond these shores, but raises a laugh here because Kerry-Anne is better known as a morning chat show host on the Nine Network. As for the American material? Admittedly, it did not work for me.