Prolific Australian actor Bill Hunter has died after battling cancer, according to the New York Times. He was 71. Often called upon to play characters whose gruff, commanding exteriors belied a soft heart in films such as Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, Hunter was eulogized as “the go-to iconic actor to synthesize quintessential Australian-ness” by director Baz Luhrmann, who used him to that effect in his own Strictly Ballroom and Australia.
Years before he would grow into the worn and bristly features that would make him a popular choice for filmmakers looking for a tough, working-class type, Hunter got his start as an extra in 1957’s On The Beach, a job that inspired him to pursue acting full time. Over the years, he starred in numerous Australian TV shows and movies, beginning with several “bushranger” films like 1970’s Mick Jagger-starring Ned Kelly and Dennis Hopper’s Mad Dog Morgan in 1976. Hunter had a breakout starring role in 1978’s Newsfront, in which he played a daring newsreel photographer; his performance garnered him a Best Actor award from the Australian Film Institute.
One of Hunter’s most lasting films was the Peter Weir-directed Gallipoli, in which he played Major Barton, tasked with leading a group of soldiers that includes Mel Gibson into an unwinnable campaign during the First World War. Hunter’s farewell speech and the trembling way he blows his whistle before sending his men to certain death are a huge part of why the infamous climax remains one of the most emotionally affecting war scenes ever committed to celluloid. Hunter later received an Australian Film Institute award for Best Supporting Actor.
Here is that classic ending—spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film, obviously.
Hunter would enjoy some other international attention in the Stephen Frears-directed The Hit opposite Terence Stamp, John Hurt, and Tim Roth, but his biggest crossover successes came with late-career roles in comedies. In Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, he played the shady president of a ballroom dancing federation, followed by a turn as the bride’s father in Muriel’s Wedding in 1994. That same year, he co-starred in The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, playing an outback mechanic who proves surprisingly protective of a traveling troupe of drag queens.
Although Hunter’s burly face was more or less his calling card, he wasn’t seen at all in his biggest box-office hit—playing the dentist who ends up stealing away with the titular fish in Finding Nemo. Hunter would also lend his voice to last year’s Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole, and other recent roles included small parts in HBO’s The Pacific and the Joel Edgerton-starring thriller The Square, a performance that prompted the New York Times’ A.O. Scott to deem him “an Australian national treasure.” His final film roles, in Red Dog and The Cup, will be seen later this year.