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The Actor: An Interview with Bill Hunter

May 24, 2011

The following interview with Bill Hunter was conducted by Phillip Noyce and published in Third Take (edited by Raffaele Caputo and Geoff Burton, Allen & Unwin, 2002), where it formed part of the book’s section on the making of Newsfront. I decided to upload this interview because Third Take is out-of-print and hence is a piece of oral history that is difficult to find. It is worth reading because in it Hunter is frank, characteristically cantankerous and funny, and  though his answers are often infuriatingly short, they are still remarkably revealing of his life, loves and acting career.

Bill Hunter (1940 – 2011)

How did you get into acting in the first place?

Misfortune, accident. I started out by doing stunts for On the Beach. That was in 1959.

Did you ever think you were going to be an actor?

No idea.

So when did you actually get in front of a camera and say lines for the first time?

Oh, it was on Homicide (1964-75). I called myself an actor and one thing led to another. Then I ran into ratbags like you. [Laughs.]

I’d like to go back to the beginning …

Go for your life.

Because you’re a very important figure in the Australian film industry I’m sure people would love to know a bit about your life.

I’m a bush kid.

Where were you born?

I was born in Fitzroy, Melbourne. But when, at a very early age, my old man said, “I’m going to be a publican,” I went with him obviously. Dad used to get into a bush pub, build it up and sell it for a profit. By the time I was thirteen years old I’d been to just as many schools, and at thirteen I also left school and went droving. As a consequence my education is not the type one gets at university. You had a look and a listen and you copped your lumps.

So you went from school to school, didn’t learn much except …

Didn’t want to know, really. Before there was a word for dyslexia, I had it. I just didn’t understand and would spend a lot of time looking out the window. Didn’t learn much at all, although the things they were trying to teach me were only commonsense to me. It was like learning the Ten Commandments, which is easy stuff—you don’t knock around with somebody’s wife, you don’t thieve, and if you did you got belted.

You had a hard upbringing?

Pretty hard, yes.

Was your father a tough cookie?

He was a fighter as well as a raconteur, singer of songs and teller of lies. He was a good bloke.

Can you tell me a little bit about droving?

Tim Frood lived in a tram at a place called Bald Hills outside Ballarat, with his de facto wife and eleven children. He used to drink in my old man’s pub, the North Star in Ballarat. I was very fortunate to have stables at the back and a couple of horses. Tim Frood told me I had the wrong horses, that they didn’t suit me. He said, ‘Whatever you do mate, do what suits you. Go for it!’ I was thirteen and I went droving with him for six to eight weeks at a time. We’d bring a mob of steers down from New South Wales into Victoria, and we lived in a wagon. After that I showed a little bit of ability in the water.

How did you get into swimming?

Ballarat City Baths. There was a man called Norman Lee who was a champion country swimmer. He had won a Victorian title. I took him on when I was about fourteen years old and beat him—by that I mean I squared off with the big kids, did my best and was good enough to win. In the following year I swam in the Australian swimming championships. Frankly, I was a different man back then.

How?

By the time of my nineteenth birthday I was very close to being one of the best in the world and then I fell over just before the Rome Olympics. I had viral meningitis. I went from a sprint weight of 12.5 stone to about 8.6 stone in two weeks. I couldn’t compete any more and had to find something else to do. I was deranged for a long time.

Because you gave up swimming?

I didn’t give it up, I wasn’t allowed anymore, and as a consequence there was a desire to be quenched. I had to try something else.

So in 1959 you were living in Melbourne and you heard about this American film, On the Beach. Just tell us the story.

My old man was in charge of security and they were looking for a stunt double—a maniac, really, because there was no skill involved. It was all balls and guts. Fred Astaire, Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Tony Perkins came to see me swim one night. In fact, Tony Perkins rang up my father and that’s how I got to do all the stunts.

Tony Perkins rings your father and says what?

Actually my sister answered the phone and Perkins said, ‘I’d like to speak to Bill Hunter,’ and my sister said, ‘Junior or senior?’ ‘The one I’ve just seen swimming,’ says Perkins, and that’s how it started.

Do you remember the type of stunts you had to do?

Yes, I drove a Ferrari for Fred Astaire. I crashed that rather spectacularly. I rode a tricycle for Tony Perkins. Crashed that, too, but not deliberately. And I swam, which was a snap. I was getting about £30 a day, which was quite extraordinary in those days. My old man was on the basic wage, I think he was getting about £15 a week.

And did you learn anything of the craft on that film?

No. But I did see Fred Astaire do twenty-seven takes for a two-minute scene and I thought, ‘Fuck! I can do that.’ I think I just fell short, didn’t I? I once did twenty-five takes for you. [Laughs.]

Okay, so you finished On the Beach, your swimming career is more or less over, and we’re in the early sixties. What happened next?

In 1961 I went to London and by that time I started calling myself an actor. I was still, for want of a better word, deranged, and so I just hit the road and did repertory theatre for a while in London. It took my brother two years to find me. He didn’t know where I was and my parents were very worried.

Tell us about being an Australian in London in the early sixties.

Bloody amazing! Ray Barrett and Rod Taylor were there, you had the arse out of your pants, living with Irishmen and sometimes sleeping on the embankment of the Thames, over sewage grates because it was warm there. It stank, but it was warm. You inhaled a culture made up of actors like Jeremy Kemp, Peter O’Toole and Albert Finney. You’d drink where they drank and you became imbued with an attitude of what it takes to be an actor. It takes a lot of courage, especially if you don’t say much and you’re a shy person by nature. In order to pursue it, you’ve got to be a bit bold.

I ran into those people some time later, O’Toole and Finney, and they reminded me of things I’d forgotten, like my fighting in London pubs. Don’t get uneasy, this is the truth. I was knocking around with Irish and Scottish actors and the same belligerent attitude was prevalent among them as it is among Australians. They were all outrageous men. I think Trevor Howard made a salient point about me back then. He said to me one day, ‘My dear young fellow, nobody can do it like you.’1 I can remember getting into the Pickwick Club one night and I had about three and sixpence in my pocket. I walked out with about £400 from playing pennies against the wall with John Lennon.

London in the sixties was quite extraordinary in that it was the capital of the world and you felt yourself in the middle of it. I don’t remember much of it but I do know I was in trouble a lot.

Was your accent a problem?

To me the acting game is not about accent. It’s intuition and it has to do with instinct. You can only play what you recognise and I recognise quite a lot.

So why did you go to London?

I had to go somewhere. I had to get out and I thought I had something to say, though I wasn’t quite sure what that was.

Could it also have been because you didn’t see much of a future in the acting game in Australia?

There was no future at all in Australia then. That’s why Peter Finch and Chips Rafferty and a lot of great Australian actors all went overseas. But when I went I was just kicking around, I wasn’t deliberately setting out to become an actor.

When did you come back to Australia?

I think I came back in 1968 or early 1969. I’d worked with some really good people and though I really hadn’t hardened up, I came back and just waltzed into television. I worked for Crawford Productions and tried everything that was going around—albeit, ignorance breeds fear, I brought that to my acting, and fear’s a great stimulus, isn’t it?

So when did you start in movies in Australia?

I think it was your film, Backroads (1977), or perhaps 27A  (1974) by Esben Storm. I did some good television work prior to that, but not a feature film. I didn’t have a clue of who you were—and neither did you. [Laughs]

I’d like to thank you for giving me that opportunity.

We had a script on Backroads but most of it was improvised. Can you describe that process?

I think the process started when you introduced me to Gary Foley. You thought you were introducing us but we’d known each other for some time and so we stacked on a bit of a scene for you. I was the first lead and one of the very few I’ve played. You paid me respect, I gave you my best, and it was a process of ‘just have a go’. That’s what has brought me to this point, really.

Can you remember shooting some of the improvised scenes?

Yes, but we did them best in rehearsal. [Laughs] There’s something that happens in a performer—I’m calling myself a performer now—when they reach a point and they ‘just go for it’. As a director you should know that. There’s something electric in just turning the actor loose. I remember the opening scene of Backroads because it’s so extraordinary: the furtive look of Foley, the down-and-dirty look of me, and you can tell something’s going to happen. It was lovely. I think ‘turning the actor loose’ is very important and you gave us the opportunity to do just that.

Do you remember the old Pontiac? It was in pretty good shape. I wanted that car when we started the shoot.

You know what I did with the Pontiac, don’t you?

I don’t know.

I used it for a publicity stunt. I towed it out onto the front lawn of Sydney University and then as a stunt to raise interest in the movie I brought along six sledge-hammers and invited the students to wreck the car.

Do you mean that I could have bought it cheap?

Real cheap!

I remember at one point Foley and me screaming along in the Pontiac and for no reason at all a mob of Friesian cattle start coming across the road. Now Friesians are black and white. I said to Foley, ‘Jesus, look at this!’ He said, ‘Don’t hit the black bits.’ He’s a bad bugger. I have very fond recollections of Foley. I know some fine black actors in this country but I think Foley was the first one to have the courage to really pursue acting.

Okay, you did Backroads and so now tell us how you got the part in Newsfront?

You know how I got the part.

I know, but for posterity.

It was at a pub called the Gladstone on the corner of William and Palmer Streets [in Sydney] and it was a strange sequence of events because I think Newsfront was the first time I had refused to do an audition. Half way through Backroads you said to me, ‘I’ve got a part for you,’ and I said, ‘Ease up, Phil, I’ve heard that all my life.’ You walked into the Gladstone Hotel, threw a script at me and said, ‘You can play one of the brothers.’ Without having read it, I said, ‘No, I’m going to play “the” brother and I won’t screen-test and I won’t audition.’ That turned me around a bit because it was a huge punt for me, but I felt it was the right time to assert myself. I didn’t do the audition and you still gave me the part.

Then Elfick asked me to read in for people at Palm Beach. I really thought I was secure, that I had the part. I’ll read in for anybody, I don’t care, but I didn’t realise the reading at Palm Beach was in fact an audition.

I can remember you weren’t too fit at the time. Do you remember your trainer PJ [Paul Jones]?

Yes, poor bugger. I love him, I really do.

Tell us about getting you ready for the film.

I had a bit of a reputation, the man was engaged and didn’t drink and he was assigned to me for a couple of weeks. I don’t know whose idea that was, but at the end of the film he called himself an actor and his engagement was off.

Remember when we had you shave off your beard?

There was a hidden agenda, wasn’t there? And it also caused a bit of a dispute, too, because apart from the fact that I’ve got no chin, I had a really cavalier attitude, and still do insofar what you see is what you get. You wear who you are and I didn’t really want to change the way I looked. David Elfick, I think, insisted that I shave. I remember him saying, ‘Listen, I’m the producer and I don’t give a fuck who you are!’ I remember that worked. He was right, I was wrong. Forgive me.

As I remember it, David said you had to shave your beard off and you said no way. Then I remember you disappearing into one of those side rooms at David’s studio.

You have to realise that I was hiding at that point in my life. I was never happier than when I was playing somebody else, which I suppose is what acting’s about. But to take the beard off and show myself to the world was a major step. It would have been like taking my clothes off in Martin Place. I felt that exposed.

I remember you coming out of the side room looking like you were naked and you were wondering what would be our reaction. Now I can reveal what it was that we didn’t say to you. We thought, ‘Oh, Jesus!’

So what did you rely on then?

Well, that’s why we decided to get you a trainer to take a little bit of weight off your face. Obviously your beard was covering the chin and so we thought we’d better try to get you in shape, firm you up.

Didn’t know what you were dealing with, of course. [Laughs]

The first day you were put with your trainer, he set you to run from one end of Palm Beach to the other. I think you got about 100 metres before the session was over.

Well, I probably knew more about fitness than PJ. What you don’t know, sir, is that I had a massive heart attack and Sandy Beach—God love her—took me to an acupuncturist two days before we started shooting.

You had a heart attack! When?

Two days before we started shooting.

You went to hospital?

No.

How did you know it was a heart attack?

I stopped breathing for a while.

Where were you?

Down on the beach with PJ and Sandy.

You mean the training we set you caused a heart attack?

Virtually. I’m not telling you a fib. This actually happened. PJ knew, Sandy knew, and I certainly knew. Nobody else did. I still saddled up for the part, though.

What was your reaction when you first read Bob Ellis’s script for Newsfront?

Bob’s script really had nothing to do with what I actually did. Though I do remember Ellis trying to out-sprint you down the aisle for the AFI award. [Laughs] What I do know is that Newsfront looks like a $4 million picture and you brought it in for about $500 000, didn’t you?

What do you remember after all this time about the character of Len Maguire?

Don’t ask me for any theory on acting. What you see is what you get. I do remember Syd Wood and his approach to just about everything, and that somebody was silly enough to give us a few bob to go have a drink and get to know each other. That has stayed with me.

So Syd Wood, this former Cinesound cameraman, was an inspiration for you?

No, I knew whom I had to play. Syd brought his craft, for want of a better word, and I just thought, “Well, that’s the way to play it.”

Syd allowed you to find the character?

I can play Prospero in a minute, but I don’t think you can put it that simply because Shakespeare is almost a foreign language. Whereas Syd Wood, for me, was somebody I knew and good at what he did. But for the advent of television, he’d have been there with the big ones, hitting hard and often.

Do you remember some of the rehearsals we did in preparation for the shoot?

Yes I do, but I didn’t take much notice. I remember one session with Christopher [Haywood] and the lovely Lorna Lesley, and the young Steven Bisley and Bryan [Brown] were there as well. It was wonderful to watch them. I was having a beer, you know?

Hang on, I missed that.

I was in the electrics truck having a beer. I wasn’t taking the film seriously enough until I realised I was in fact playing the lead.

John Ewart2 played Charlie, the cameraman for Newsco. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with him and your recollections of him as an actor?

I remember the first day of shooting on Newsfront, lunch was called and John and I thought we had an hour and so we hit the pub. We only had a half an hour—you tight bastard!—and you had to come looking for us. We were half an hour late in your terms and there was a moment of angst there. That was okay, though, it was your first major feature. But we didn’t deliberately stay out longer; we genuinely thought we had an hour for lunch.

Johnny Ewart, I miss him. Yes, I do. He was much like me. He didn’t act; he reacted. I think that’s an important difference. I’d sooner be called an actor than an Actor—good actors react. It was our attitude too. John Meillon3 shared that, and I think all the good ones do react.

What does ‘react’ mean?

Like I said before, I’m doing Shakespeare at the moment, The Tempest, and I can’t come to terms with that. I’m playing Prospero and that’s being an Actor, but Prospero has nothing to do with me. The really good actors bring something else to a great role—themselves.

Were you surprised when Newsfront was a success?

No, the film was something I believed in. I’m not sure of the degree of success Newsfront actually achieved, but for me, selfishly, it was a turnaround. I didn’t have to play anymore the heavy who doesn’t say much standing on the left-hand side of the screen. Newsfront gave me a look at the ‘rabbit’ and I grabbed it. I was fortunate because you trusted me. I’m also very proud of the film in as much as it was on the school curriculum for about eight years, and I believe that it sustained a particular Australian ethos. It was significant for me for that reason and I’m grateful.

Do you remember anything about the working methods on Newsfront, such as the way we shot it?

No. I was flat out doing what I had to do, you were doing what you were doing, and Vince Monton was doing what he was doing. That stuff had nothing to do with me; I just wanted to play the role.

Have you changed as an actor over the years?

I hope I’ve become better.

In what way?

I know what not to do. Less is better, I think. I’m not looking for another Newsfront, but because I have more respect now I would approach it in a different way.

Respect for what?

I want to be as good an actor as the great ones I’ve worked with.

You haven’t achieved that?

Nowhere near it. I think there’s a point where you say, ‘Okay, I’m a good actor’, and then you find that you can go further and be an even better actor. No result so far.

I’d debate that.

You can if you like, but on my terms. Not yours.

I think one of your greatest performances is in The Dismissal (1983).

I got a letter from a man in Los Angeles who I really respected. The letter was an affectionate acknowledgement, he wrote I had given the greatest performance by an Australian actor anywhere, any time. That letter was from Byron Kennedy shortly before he died.4

Referring to?

Rex Connor. Francis Xavier Connor.5

I have to agree with Byron Kennedy that your portrayal of Rex Connor is one of the greatest performances ever seen in an Australian film.

Well, thank you, sir.

It was a brilliant characterisation that brought tears to one’s eyes—the tragedy of the man’s ambition, his love for the country …

And he came within three weeks of bringing it off. Without ambition there are no great influences, no great directors, no writers, and no great actors. Unless you can emulate those you habitually admire, you’re fucked.

So who are the great actors you’ve worked with, the ones you would be like to be as good as?

Albert Finney, John Hurt, Trevor Howard, Peter O’Toole. O’Toole bemuses me because he’s just one of those wonderful people who has an innate ability. The rest of us have to work for it. There are people still running around, like Dennis Hopper and Timothy Roth, who have a wonderful belligerent, gutter attitude that I like. I’m privileged to have squared off with those people.

We’re skirting around a bit, I guess that’s just because I’ve a low tolerance for detail …

Oh, rubbish you’ve got a low tolerance for detail. You’re fucking fastidious.

Whatever. How did you prepare for each of your scenes, or did you play them instinctually?

React; don’t act.

Were you thinking about the whole film?

No.

One scene at a time then?

I read the script, I knew what it was about and so it was like, ‘What do I have to do today?’ That was it. I didn’t take the film home with me. It was: ‘That’s a wrap, I’m out of the joint. What time tomorrow?’

Have you always worked like that?

Yep, because I didn’t have the ability to get into NIDA. Not that I really wanted to. The whole thing was an afterthought.

You didn’t have the ability, so therefore …

Oh, come off it! There’s no ability. You know that getting the job is harder than doing it.

Has it always been like that?

I think it always will be. I’m amused and bemused by young actors that do a lot of training. They receive respect—and deservedly so—which I’ve never had. On the other hand, if you have the opportunity to work with great actors then you better measure up. But ‘measuring up’ cannot be taught.

No it can’t. But your process must have changed over the years? Surely for Rex Connor it was a little different.

No, Rex Connor was only commonsense when it comes down to it. I’ve done fifty-eight films now and out of those films I think I got away with Rex Connor, I got away with the major in Gallipoli (1981) and I just scraped through with Newsfront. What else have I done? I think I was quite good in The Hit (1984). Then there are the frivolous things like Strictly Ballroom (1992), Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). But, then again, I owe those performances to you.

Why?

You showed faith in me in the first place.

You may not remember this, but Elizabeth Knight, who was the first assistant director on Backroads, said to me ‘You’ve got to meet Billy Hunter.’ I remember going with her to a pub in Surry Hills in Sydney to meet you. You came out of the pub and we stood on the footpath for a moment. You gave me about two minutes of your time. I don’t know whether you’d read the script or whether we had a script at that stage, but I told you what the character was like and you did an improvisation for me there on the spot. The improvisation lasted about 20 seconds, I explained it to you for about 30 seconds before hand, and I can remember looking into your eyes and there was a fire in your eyes I’d never seen. I thought, ‘What the Jesus is that?’ That’s when I decided, ‘I’ve got to have this man in the movie.’ It was a fire I’ve not seen before or since until this moment with you sitting here opposite me.

And do you know what that’s called, Phillip? It’s called fight, fuck and feed.

That goes back to the pubs in Victoria?

Yes, and courage is telling yourself that you’re frightened. I’ve been frightened all my fucking life.

You think you’ve fed off fear all your life. Is it a good thing to be afraid?

I think it has more to do with running into people that you really have no other option but to admire. You say, ‘Jesus, he did that well!’ Anything less makes you a bit frightened. I’m not talking about acting skill here. I’m talking about panache and about innate ability. I’ve seen it a few times.

So what do you want to talk about now, Phillip?

We’re talking about it.

Any danger of getting a beer?

[Long pause]

Obviously you grew up in the era during which Newsfront is set. Do you have any particular recollections that helped you when doing the film?

I remember the 1950s very vividly because that was a part of my life when I was training as an athlete, and I was also working with the Melbourne Sports Depot, which was a chain of outlets around Victoria that catered purely to sport. I was a sports salesman all of fifteen or sixteen years of age. The newsreels would come out weekly, so at least once a week I used to duck across the street in my lunch hour, pay my shilling and see the newsreels and short films. I loved watching them, though of course I never dreamed I’d end up in a film about the newsreels.

Do you see Australia in that time as being different to today? Do you think we’ve changed as a nation?

I heard an absurd remark the other day: that Bob Menzies would have been in favour of a republic. I’m fiercely Australian and I find that there’s still a defiant attitude or spirit, if you will, that encompasses our migration policy. I think it’s a wonderful thing to walk down the streets of Sydney, or anywhere in Australia, and see Asian faces and Aboriginal faces. I think the migration situation right now is helping our own Indigenous people because nobody looks the same any more. If ‘Pig Iron’ Bob were in power we’d still have a white Australia policy, thank you very much. We’re too good for that.

What appals me now is that we were defeated in becoming a republic despite the fact we’ve fought other people’s wars and that we were sent out here as the idiot sister in the attic in the first place. I lent my name to the republican cause, I did commercials and political campaigns for it, I did everything I could for it, but we got beat because of a silly little quirk, a question that wasn’t cloaked in the right way. I’m a bit ashamed and I think it’s about time we stood up on our own two feet. Apart from that, I have no opinion whatsoever.

How about the values of the country, have they changed from the fifties?

When I was growing up Australia had a population of about nine million. We are now around eighteen million but I think there’s still a defiant spirit. Your mum and your dad were not dissimilar to my mum and dad, but I also think the people who have come from elsewhere love this country because of that attitude.

That attitude being?

A freedom and a licence to behave as you will, in that this is possibly the last bastion of a free democratic society—although we’re still licking up to the Americans.

So you very much identified with the values espoused by the film?

Certainly. When I met you and Peter Weir and a whole lot of other filmmakers, the film industry was pretty fiercely Australian. And I didn’t do anything that wasn’t—I’ve never played an American.

Would you ever?

I don’t think I could.

How was it working with Chris Haywood? Where did you first meet him?

I did a play with him at the Nimrod Theatre with Tony Llewellyn-Jones, but I had never worked with him on a film set before. He was a mischievous little bugger and he reminds me of Timothy Roth in lots of ways. Christopher has a wonderful personality and he brings that to whatever he does. He’s fervent and for that I admire him.

I know you’re going to ask me about Angela Punch-McGregor and Wendy Hughes. They blazed a trail for Australian actresses, and I insist on the term actress. I’m sick of being castrated because I’m a male. All the good ones I know take pride in the term actress.

When you’re working opposite another actor, what is it you look for in them?

Exactly what we’ve got here. If you can’t look at a man, then you can’t look at a man. Simple.

You look in the eyes?

Of course. It’s like squaring off with a good fighter—the eyes tell you.

So you will try to make contact. What do you do if the other actor is not contacting you?

Ignore it and run the race. This may sound like elitism, but fortunately I don’t work unless I know whom I’m working with. That’s because I’m a bit bristly, a bit fragile, and I don’t want anything less than what I can give.

Don Crosby played your boss in the film, A. G. Marwood. When did you first meet Don?

It might interest you to know that Newsfront was the first film for Don Crosby and John Dease. They’d never done a film before. They were scared shitless.

How do you know that?

I talked to them.

And what did they say?

‘It is a whole new world and it’s a mistake.’ It was just a lack of timing; they should have been doing it all their lives because they were very wonderfully talented people. They were radio stars with whom I grew up listening to. They thought I was used to it; they didn’t know I’d never really done it before either.

And Wendy Hughes?

I’ve never seen anybody, male or female, as luminous as Wendy was at that scene at the bar in Newsfront. I’ve worked with some of the best but Wendy on that day, at that moment in time, was just sublime. Why hasn’t somebody realised and truly utilised the Wendy Hughes’s, or the Punch-McGregor’s and the Lorna Lesley’s of this country? They can act the pants off any Hollywood star.

I took my woman to the opening of the Fox Studios, against my will. She wanted to go; she doesn’t get out very much. I found myself saying, ‘Oh God, I’m in the lion’s den, I’m sleeping with the enemy.’ It was awful until I ran into Paul Keating, who gave me a big hug.

You think Australia is special?

I think it’s very special. I’ve watched this country becoming something that America failed to achieve. I actually wept because the republican issue was cloaked in so oblique terms.

Did it matter? Isn’t it about the people?

It’s precisely about the people. That’s what I’m saying.

What is it about the Australian people and the Australian temperament that you really feel proud of?

I’ll tell you straight, it’s no coincidence or accident that the Australian of Irish stock has an affinity with the Australian Aboriginal. Because they’re both persecuted races, exploited to the nth degree, and it’s about fucking time we stood up and said so.

And what is your heritage?

Well, my mama’s name was Eileen Frances Burke. You can’t get more Irish than that. My father’s name was William Watson Hunter. You can’t get more Scottish than that. When I first arrived in Naples [Italy] I felt completely at peace. Years later I told my mum and she said, ‘Well, it’s not surprising, Bill, because your great, great grandmother was Dimontina from Naples.’

What do we believe in as Australians?

I’ll tell you, Phillip, we believe in the fact that we weren’t here by choice. We shouldn’t be here and we have to respect the people who were here before we were.

Did you go to Catholic school?

I went to all schools.

Do you believe in God?

No. Do you?

Yeah.

Why?

I’m not saying it’s the God that’s taught by the church …

Well, which god are you talking about?

The one in you.

What about him?

Back to Newsfront, what about Gerard Kennedy?

Kennedy was well established and I really liked watching him. It’s like what we were talking about before—Actors or actors—I’m an actor and so is Gerard Kennedy. I have great respect for him; he taught by example and I’d like to think that eventually I would do that too. He’s a man of high integrity and I like him because he has done it tough. I think we both realised that when we squared off as brothers. Unlikely casting, though.

To be playing brothers?

Yes.

When did you first work with Gerard Kennedy?

Probably in Division 4 (1969-77).

You were playing?

Oh, the third heavy from the left. He was playing the lead.

Was he someone you looked up to at that time?

No.

Why?

With remarkably few exceptions, I don’t look up to anybody. Because I know most of the acting game is bullshit anyway. If you can adapt to that you’re halfway there. But I did admire Kennedy as a man. I’ve watched him behave in a way that I would like to behave—and he had an appeal.

What do you think your appeal has been?

I’m not sure that I have any appeal. I’m just telling the truth. Maybe that’s appealing.

Phillip, I applaud you.

Thank you, and mutual applause because you started me.

I applaud you because you’re one of three or four directors I can pay a compliment to. While a lot of other directors have no conception what an actor is about. No idea at all.

What is an actor about?

An actor wants to be considered. An actor wants to be there because he’s the only one to do the role. I don’t want to be second choice; I don’t want to be third choice. That’s why I refused to audition for Newsfront. Otherwise I could have been a coachbuilder for the Victorian Railways.

Are you glad you weren’t a coachbuilder for the Victorian Railways?

I’m not sure. This might be a shocking thing to say, but I look at people who I grew up with, they’re married and they’re grandfathers and grandmothers and I don’t think I could have done that.

I understand you’re a bit of a party animal in Los Angeles?

I am? Who said?

That’s the word.

Must have been my publicist.

I don’t think so. We get a bit of feedback occasionally. I don’t think I could survive in LA. I think I may live in Europe for a while. I think Europeans are better actors. Do you not agree?

Some, yes. Different style …

Style is what we’re talking about though, isn’t it?

Different market, different everything …

Let me ask you this, where was the first film studio in Australia? Come on?

Where?

In Glebe Point Road, Glebe. Two French brothers set it up and it’s now a fish and chip shop.

Looking back, do you wish you’d had more opportunity?

No. I don’t think lack of opportunity has anything to do with lack of ability. It has to do with being as good as you can and want to be. The type of people I run in tandem with are Max Cullen, an extraordinary talent out there called Ric Carter, Paul Chubb, who has survived a near-death situation, and Dennis Miller. They’re all sort of low-profile people but they are supreme actors. They’re wonderful and they can’t help themselves but be wonderful. I prefer to be in that company.

Do you remember the arguments that you and I and other cast members had about alcohol? Because alcohol was a part of the making of the film, it was a part of the culture.

Well, that’s also how I grew up. If you didn’t drink and didn’t smoke, you weren’t considered much of man. I should have been more intuitive in that role. But we’ve laid the bricks; we can’t change it now.

Any regrets about Newsfront?

There are none.

None?

I’d like a poster.

Okay, I can arrange that.

The American poster or the Australian one?

I can get one for you.

It’ll be under glass.

Okay, you want it under glass.

No, no, no. You give me the poster; I’ll put it under glass.

You said earlier you should have taken Newsfront more seriously. What did you mean by that?

To me the time was in the job.

It was just another job?

That’s what people think, but I knew that Newsfront was more than just a job. You have to remember that I had a certain cavalier attitude because I was frightened. But I think I might have pulled it off for you, son.

You did and you’ve never looked better.

You’re a bit old fashioned, that’s all.7 [Laughs]

Endnotes

1 Howard and Hunter appeared together in Lewis Milestone’s 1962 remake of Mutiny On the Bounty, with Marlon Brando in the role of Christian Fletcher.

2 John Ewart, 1928-94.

3 John Mellion, 1934-89.

4 Byron Kennedy, 1952-83.

5 Rex Connor [Reginald Francis Xavier] (1907 – 77) entered federal politics in 1963 as the Labor member for Cunningham and had aligned himself with Gough Whitlam, who gave him the new portfolio of minerals and energy after the 1972 election. Connor had a vision for a fully Australian-owned resources industry, but her was sacked as minister in 1975 over his unorthodox method for raising capital via a middleman, Tirath Klemlani, to exploit alternative energy sources. His sacking was one event that led to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government.

6 Don Crosby (1924 – 1985) was a radio personality who actually started acting as a child in both radio and theatre, and later studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London (1946 – 48). He was also known as a director of numerous radio shows, including the very popular Blue Hills (c.1970s) in his last years. Apart from Newsfront, other film credits include Moving On (1974), The Fourth Wish (1976), The Picture Show Man (1977), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) and Heatwave (1982). In 1980 Crosby was awarded the Order of Australia for services to the media and theatre, and in 1985 received the Raymond Longford Award from the Australian Film Institute.

7 Hunter is quoting the last line of dialogue from Newsfront. When Hunter’s character, Len Maguire, marches away from his brother’s offer to buy an exclusive piece of news footage, Amy (Wendy Hughes) turns to Frank Maguire (Gerard Kennedy) and says, ‘He’s just a bit old fashioned, that’s all.’

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