Ode to Billy Hunter: Address to Bill Hunter Memorial Service, Princess Theatre, Melbourne 26th May 2011
by Gary Foley
Tracker Magazine 2011
I firstly must pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land we are gathered on today. That is something Billy Hunter would have wanted me to do, even though some in the new Government in Victoria may think it is not appropriate.
I met Billy Hunter sometime in the late 60s or early 70s through my cousin Gary Williams. He was a mate ever since, even though our encounters were getting less frequent as we both got older. But in all those 40 years or more, even as he became one of the best know faces in Australian film, to his friends he was always the same Billy. A basically decent, egalitarian, knockabout larrikin. Like another great artist who drew inspiration from ordinary people and the downtrodden, Billy was akin to Woody Guthrie, and was also a man of the people.
In his inelegance there was an abundance of elegance in his superb craft and style on screen. In the same way there was on screen a tremendous eloquence in his ineloquence, whereby he seemed to speak for all Australians in a decent and compassionate voice. On screen Bill Hunter was often the Australian all Australians saw themselves to be.
His generosity of spirit was perhaps matched only by his capacity for spirits, or to be more precise, a drink. But that was Billy.
I first met Billy in a range of honkytonks, jazz clubs and bars around Kings Cross and Darlinghurst in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In those days Gary Williams and myself were young black power political activists during the day and hunters and collectors at night, as we sought out fellow free spirits. Among the crew we encountered in our wanderings were a motley but admirable assortment of actors, artists, writers, musicians and libertarians that included the likes of Max Cullen, Denis Miller, Rob Steele, Marcus Cooney, Merv Rutherford and Big Bad Bill Hunter.
That two young mad Redfern black power advocates could get on like a house on fire with the likes of Big Bad Billy, was in itself quite extraordinary, but as I got to know Bill back then, I soon realised that a lot of blackfellas round NSW seemed to know him. He was one of the few Australians we met in those days who seemed quite at ease in the company of Gooris, and who had an insight into the experience of Blacks when confronted with white racist attitudes, something that Billy would never tolerate.
Billy Hunter knew and understood blackfellas.
And if I might be permitted to inject a political note, Billy Hunter certainly had a greater knowledge and understanding of blackfellas than the current Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Jenny Macklin and the architects of the Northern Territory intervention. And I am also reasonably certain that Billy would not have minded if I said to you all today, that Native Title is Not Land Rights, and Reconciliation is Not Justice!
So, back in 1975, when I was approached by Phil Noyce and I had conned him into thinking that he was conning me into acting in his first film Backroads, and we needed a white actor who could play the role of the white racist ocker, I immediately thought of Billy because I knew he had unique insight into both the Aboriginal community as well as white ockerdom. Despite Noyce's inaccurate claim in his sanitised biography, From Backroads to Hollywood, that he and someone else chose Hunter for the role of Jack in Backroads, it was in fact me who insisted on Bill for the role.
This led to me receiving my notorious first lesson in acting from the legendary Bill Hunter.
It came about because on the night before we were to start shooting Backroads, sitting by a campfire on the outskirts of Bourke, I confessed to Billy that I had conned Noyce into thinking that I could act. I was worried about what would happen the next morning when the camera was about to roll.
Billy looked at me and said, "Don't worry Foles, just watch me and follow what I do and say in the morning". I said OK, and I wondered what Billy had in mind.
The next morning at 5am, Billy said to me 'watch this' and he walked up to Noyce and told him that we actors were not going to start work until there was two slabs of cold beer on set. Noyce was flummoxed by this demand, but Billy was insistent and somehow Noyce managed to find and produce two cold cartons of VB by 6am.
Billy then turned to me and said, "Right Foley! This is your first acting lesson. Help me drink this!"
That was the last time I was sober for the whole shoot of Backroads, something that is evident if you have seen the film. But it did make me think I could act. Well, for the next six weeks anyway. Twenty years later, Phil Noyce in his aforementioned sanitised biography, claimed that in 1976 he was still too inexperienced as a Director to know that you could and should use prop (fake) alcohol in a film. But I think that was just an excuse for being too scared to stand up to Bill Hunter.
As a result Billy and I had a ball making Backroads, and I would still argue that the completely improvised dialogue between me and Bill in Backroads is among the best improvising in any Australian film ever.
My next significant encounter with Bill was on the French Rivera at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. On the basis that Backroads was screening, I had conned a fare to Cannes out of the Australian Council for the Arts, and had arrived in Cannes with just 30 English Pounds in my pocket and nowhere to stay. At first I tried to get Phil Noyce to shout me a hotel room but he balked at the expense. Then I bumped into Billy Hunter, who, in his inimitable style said, “Don't worry Foles, me and some actor mates have rented this huge villa, come and camp with us.” Sure enough, Billy along with actors Roger Ward, Peter Sumner, and others had tossed in and rented some oil millionaire's mansion that was palatial. So courtesy of Billy I managed to live like a King for the two weeks of the Cannes Film Festival.
Over the next 30 years Billy and I would bump into each other regularly, usually in a pub or bar in Carlton, Fitzroy or Collingwood. On these occasions we would relive our past adventures and plot new ones that sadly never survived the planning stage.
But it was always a pleasure to catch up with him and share an ale or three, even though I had cut back drastically on my drinking after I turned 40. As he grew more well-known through his films, he never sought to prove anything by rushing off to Hollywood and big-time fame and glory. I thought it admirable that he chose to stay here and be able to walk the streets as the normal bloke he was. He had his moments in the spotlight and on red carpets at premieres, but he always felt more comfortable in the company of ordinary Australian men and women.
And ordinary Australian people responded to that and loved him for it. Over the past week my facebook page was inundated with tributes by hundreds of people who had encountered Billy in some pub or on the street and had been deeply touched by his humility and humanity. The stories these people poured out showed the deep warmth and love that the people of Australia had for him.
In some ways I think of Bill Hunter as a white Lionel Rose, in the sense that he was a man who all Australians seemed to have a deep emotional connection with, and who was consequently loved by all.
Then, when I think again, Billy may have been born with a white skin, but he had the heart of a blackfella. And that is the greatest compliment I could ever pay to any person.