Vale Uncle Jack Charles, Indigenous elder, actor and activist

Uncle Jack Charles. (Image: Bindi Cole)

Celebrated First Nations actor, author, and activist Uncle Jack Charles has died at the Royal Melbourne Hospital after suffering a stroke. He was 79.

Charles’ career across stage and screen spanned six decades, providing an invaluable contribution to Indigenous media.

His death on Tuesday morning was confirmed in a statement from his family, who have given permission for his name and image to be used.

“We are so proud of everything he has achieved in his remarkable life — Elder, actor, musician, potter, activist, a household name and a voice loved by all,” the statement read.

A Boon Wurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung man, Charles is acknowledged as the grandfather of Aboriginal theatre in Australia and co-founded the first Aboriginal theatre company, Nindethana Theatre, with Bob Maza in 1972.

His early screen highlights included roles in miniseries Ben Hall and Rush, as well as feature film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

The past decade has proved to be the most active for the Charles, whose credits have included feature films Mystery Road and True History of the Kelly Gang, as well as series The Gods of Wheat Street, Cleverman, Grace Beside Me, Rosehaven, Black Comedy, and Preppers.

A survivor of the stolen generation, the performer has always been open about his struggles in between acting jobs, which have included heroin addiction, homelessness, and incarceration.

In 2009 he was awarded the Tudawali Award at the Message Sticks Festival, with recognition also coming in the form of the Green Room Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014 and the 2019 Red Ochre Award, as well as being named Victorian Senior Australian of the Year in 2016 and NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year for 2022.

In the statement, his family said Charles would “live on in our hearts and memories and through his numerous screen and stage roles”.

“May he be greeted by his Ancestors on his return home,” they said.

Arts Minister Tony Burke was among those to pay tribute, noting in his tribute that Charles’ “familiar face, remarkable voice and dry sense of humour” had been a mainstay for decades now.

“A trailblazer for First Nations artists, Jack helped found Australia’s first Indigenous theatre company – Nindethana Theatre – in the 1970s at Melbourne’s Pram Factory,” he wrote.

“His life was also one of struggle, punctuated by dislocation, abuse, addiction, and incarceration. Despite those setbacks, Uncle Jack was a fierce advocate of equality, respect, and truth-telling, as well as a champion of the next generation of First Nations artists. I know the impact of that will be felt for years to come.”