As a mere 17-year-old when David Dalaithngu first landed in Europe, he was a toast to the city – a young, handsome Aboriginal film actor from the remote Northern Territory who barely knew English.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains a picture of a person who has died.
The cameras adored him and fans flocked to spot this new star.
Nearly five decades later, the world is now saying goodbye to a prolific pioneer who went high in two cultures and starred in Australian landmark films Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit Proof Fence, Storm Boy, Walkabout, The Tracker and many more.
The Yolngu actor, dancer and painter from Arnhem Land died at the age of 68.
Several years ago, Dalaithngu had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was a resident of Murray Bridge in southern Australia.
In a roller coaster career from 1971 to 2018, Dalaithngu transformed Australian cinema.
He opened his eyes to audiences all over the Western world for strong, positive portrayals of Aboriginal Australia and eventually became, as Rabbit Proof Fence director Phillip Noyce once called him, “arguably the most experienced and talented film actor in Australia”.
‘I thought I would be a cowboy, like John Wayne’
As a teenager, Dalaithngu was already seen as the best traditional dancer in the Arnhem Land community of Maningrida.
In 1969, he was discovered by British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg and chosen for a key role in his avant-garde outback film Walkabout in 1969.
“I thought I was going to be a cowboy in a movie, like John Wayne,” Dalaithngu filmmaker Darlene Johnson told the documentary One Red Blood in 2002.
During his first filming, Dalaithngu spoke little English as he grew up speaking various original languages.
But he turned out to be natural in front of the camera and radiated, as actor Jack Thompson once put it, something “dynamically attractive and sexy”.
Until this time, his early days had been spent out in the bush, hunting, dancing and studying at the Maningrida school.
“The first time I saw white people, I did not know where they came from: I thought they were a ghost, all painted in white paint,” Dalaithngu said in One Red Blood.
One of his schoolmates in Maningrida, Don Wilton, remembered a young man who wanted to “go hunting with his father, and he was also a great hunter”.
“[Dalaithngu] had no English name so we gave him the English [first] name, back in 1965 or ’66, “Wilton told ABC in Maningrida.
Shortly after his experience on the Walkabout, the Western world exploded in color in front of him.
He was flown to Europe, where he met Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, as well as Bruce Lee, and traveled to France to go on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.
But he remained a man firmly planted in two worlds – when he was not filming or traveling to attend premieres or awards ceremonies, Dalaithngu could often be found with his family around the remote community of Ramingining, more than 500 kilometers from Darwin.
“We’ve seen a lot of American movies you know as westerns, cowboys, spies and all that – but [Dalaithngu] behaved in the traditional way, in the Aboriginal way, “Wilton said.
Actor a breakthrough for Aboriginal Australia
Dalaithngu’s early film was a breakthrough in many respects.
He offered his Yolngu culture to the world – a portrayal on the big screen that looks like no one the cinema audience had ever seen.
“[He] has been absolutely critical of representing modern Australia in cinema, which after all is the greatest art form in the world, “said academic Marcia Langton once.
In Crocodile Dundee from 1986 – one of Australia’s biggest film exports ever to the US market and a film he would later condemn as “bullshit” – Dalaithngu played the role of Neville Bell, a quoted tribalist who had returned to the Top End for to perform a ceremony with his family.
In Storm Boy (1976), he was the lovable Fingerbone Bill, a role through which he captivated the country’s schoolchildren, who saw him teach his traditional knowledge to a little South Australian boy in Coorong.
In 2002’s Rabbit Proof Fence, he was the steel-eyed and state-sponsored tracker Moodoo, responsible for chasing three small stolen generation girls who had fled a settlement.
In the cult film Mad Dog Morgan (1976), he played offsides to Dennis Hopper’s title character – a wild bus changer who causes chaos in the Victorian bush.
In 2008, he had a role in Baz Luhrmann’s romantic epic Australia, recorded in Kimberley, where he played an Aboriginal elder named King George.
The recipient of the Order of Australia Medal achieved his first starring role in director Rolf de Heers outback opus The Tracker from 2002.
His long, twisted film biography also included Australian cinematic gems such as Satellite Boy, The Last Wave, Goldstone and The Proposition.
He was also known for his appearances in TV shows like Homicide, Boney and Matlock.
According to his own accounts, Dalaithngu also dived into the universe of celebrity profits – he partyed with Beatle John Lennon, smoked hash with Bob Marley and had “crazy” times with Hopper.
For him, acting could be “a piece of cake”.
Wrestling with demons in later years
Some of his arguably best and most important cinematic works were a series of films shot by de Heer, starting with The Tracker, two Ten Canoes – as he recounted – and leading to the semi-autobiographical Charlie’s Country, which dived into the modern challenges. The original life lived between the cities of the NT and the bush of Arnhem Land.
These were challenges that were often far too real for Dalaithngu.
After being introduced to grog and ganja on the set of Walkabout when he was still a teenager, the actor struggled with the demon of alcoholism throughout his life.
It was a battle that led to his lowest moments: camping in the long grass like a traveler in Darwin and being thrown into the NT’s Berrimah prison for assaulting his wife.
Although he earned hundreds of thousands of dollars for his high-profile film roles, he sometimes remained penniless, living in a cabin built of corrugated iron he had scraped from the tip.
“Big name, no blanket.”
Never lost touch with language, country, song
During his later years, public appearances – and film roles – became more sparse.
In 2013, he danced on stage at the National Indigenous Music Awards in Darwin and showed a smaller frame after the jail than the tall, curly and powerful figure he once presented.
In 2018, due to ill health, he was forced to retire from a lead role in director Stephen Johnson’s outback Territory epic High Ground starring Jack Thompson, which would eventually be released in 2020.
In recent years, rumors of his lung cancer continued.
In 2019, Dalaithngu was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual NAIDOC Awards.
His daughters accepted the award on his behalf because of his fragility.
In a videotaped speech in which he revealed that he was dying of cancer, a greedy Dalaithngu said to the audience: “To everyone, thank you for seeing me … I will still remember you, even though I am now gone forever. “
In 2021, Dalaithngu appeared in what was promoted as his swan song – a documentary about his life.
Told by Dalaithngu himself and directed by another of his longtime collaborators Molly Reynolds, who is married to De Heer, the film depicts his life and outstanding achievements as an Australian actor.
In the film, who is visibly ill while being cared for around the clock in Murray Bridge, he appears as a man reassured by his connection to a rich tradition and culture, comfortable with his own mortality.
A consecrated Yolngu man from Mandhalpuyngu, Dalaithngu never lost his connection to language, song, law and country.
“Where is the promised land – there is Mandhalpuyngu.”
He is left by family in Ramingining, Maningrida and Darwin.