Legendary Indigenous actor David Dalaithngu, known for his roles in Walkabout, Storm Boy, and Ten Canoes, has died aged 68.
His death comes after he attended the premiere of documentary My Name Is Gulpilil at the Adelaide Festival earlier this year, defying a terminal lung cancer prognosis from 2017 that had only given him six months to live.
The news was confirmed on Monday night by South Australian Premier Steven Marshall, who described the trailblazing actor as a “once-in-a-generation artist”.
“It is with deep sadness that I share the passing of an iconic, once-in-a-generation artist who shaped the history of Australian film and Aboriginal representation on screen – David Dalaithngu AM,” he wrote in a statement.
“My thoughts are with his family, and his dear friend and carer Mary Hood.”
A Mandhalpuyngu man from the Arafura Swamp region in Arnhem Land, Dalaithngu was just 16 when he starred in his breakout role in Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout, one of the first films in what became known as the Australian New Wave.
After continuing to showcase his talent with roles in Storm Boy, Mad Dog Morgan, Crocodile Dundee and Rabbit-Proof Fence, he took on his first lead role in Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker in 2002, beginning an almost two-decade association with the director.
The pair would collaborate on Ten Canoes – winner of the Cannes Special Jury Prize and the first Australian film to be made entirely in an Indigenous language – and Charlie’s Country, while the actor would also appear in John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, and Catriona McKenzie’s Satellite Boy.
When Dalaithngu was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2017, he began working with de Heer and his longtime partner Molly Reynolds on a documentary about his life, in which he would tell his story in his own words.
It was, as Marshall said in his statement, a life that was “not without its struggles”.
“He encountered racism and discrimination and lived with the pressures of the divide between his traditional lifestyle and his public profile,” he wrote.
Directed by Reynolds, My Name is Gulpilil gave Dalaithngu his first producer credit in his 50-year career, as well as what would be his final standing ovation when it premiered at the Adelaide Festival.
Speaking in the film, he said: “This story, it’s about me. And no one else can do the life of me. It’s only me. I can do the life about me.”
In a tribute AACTA said Dalaithngu’s screen presence “cannot be underestimated”.
“By emphasising heritage, cultural knowledge, and traditions Gulpilil carved the way for new role models of Indigenous Australians that broke stereotypes.”