David Gulpilil

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David Gulpilili

David Gulpilil.jpg
Gulpilil in 2006
David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu

1953 (age 67–68)
Years active1971–2019
Spouse(s)Robyn Djunginy (?–2003)
Miriam Ashley (2004–present)
AwardsBest Actor in a Leading Role
2002 The Tracker

David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu AM (born c. 1953) is an Aboriginal Australian actor and dancer, known for the films Walkabout, Storm Boy and Ten Canoes. He is a Yolngu man who was raised in a traditional lifestyle in Arnhem Land in northern Australia, and was a skilled dancer as a young man when British director Nicholas Roeg recognised his talent.

Personal life[edit]

Gulpilil was probably born in 1953,[1] although he states in the 2021 documentary about his life, My Name is Gulpilil, that he did not know how old he was. He is a man of the Mandjalpingu (Djilba) clan of the Yolngu people,[2] who are an Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia.[3] As a young boy, Gulpilil was an accomplished hunter, tracker and ceremonial dancer. Gulpilil spent his childhood in the bush, outside the range of non-Aboriginal influences.[4] There he received a traditional upbringing in the care of his family. He attended the school at Maningrida in Australia's North East Arnhem Land. When he came of age, Gulpilil was initiated into the Mandhalpuyngu tribal group. His skin group totemic animal is the kingfisher and his homeland is Marwuyu. After appearing in his first film, he added English to several Aboriginal languages in which he was already fluent.[5]

Gulpilil retired from acting in 2019, and was diagnosed with lung cancer, which prevented him from attending the 2019 NAIDOC Awards, where he was recognised with the lifetime achievement award.[6] Gulpilil has two daughters: Phoebe Marson and MaKia McLaughlin.[7]


In 1969, Gulpilil's skill as a tribal dancer caught the attention of British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, who had come to Maningrida scouting locations for a forthcoming film. Roeg promptly cast the sixteen-year-old unknown to play a principal role in his internationally acclaimed motion picture Walkabout, released in 1971. Gulpilil's on-screen charisma, combined with his acting and dancing skills, was such that he became an instant national and international celebrity. He travelled to distant lands, mingled with famous people, and was presented to heads of state.[5] During these travels to promote the film, he met and was impressed with John Lennon, Bob Marley, Muhammad Ali, and Bruce Lee.

After his high-profile performance in Walkabout, Gulpilil went on to appear in many more films and television productions. He played a lead role in the commercially successful and critically acclaimed Storm Boy (1976).[8] He "dominated" the film The Last Wave (1977), with his performance as tribal Aboriginal man Chris Lee.[8] He also had a major role in Baz Luhrmann's Australia (2008).

Gulpilil has been a major creative influence throughout his life in both dance and film. He initiated and narrated the film Ten Canoes which won a Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Festival. The prize-winning, low-budget film, based on 1,000-year-old traditional story of misplaced love and revenge, features non-professional Indigenous actors speaking their local language. Gulpilil collaborated with the director, Rolf de Heer, urging him to make the film, and although he ultimately withdrew from a central role in the project for "complex reasons,"[9] Gulpilil also provided the voice of the storyteller for the film. De Heer had directed Gulpilil in another film, The Tracker (2002).[citation needed]

He sang a role in the sole recording (1973) of Margaret Sutherland's 1964 opera The Young Kabbarli.[citation needed]

Perhaps the most renowned traditional dancer in his country, he has organised troupes of dancers and musicians and has performed at festivals throughout Australia, including the prestigious Darwin Australia Day Eisteddfod dance competition, which he won four times.[5] At a conference in Adelaide in the summer of 2000, Gulpilil performed traditional dances and shared his recovery story with hundreds of Indigenous young people. He continues to provide mentorship to them, while lending his support to social and political causes such as the pursuit of tribal land claims for indigenous people. In the early 2000s he joined other Australian artists in calling for government recognition of, and compensation for, the suffering of the "Stolen Generation" – children of mixed European and Aboriginal parentage who were forcibly removed from their Indigenous families and placed in mission schools or with white adoptive parents far from their kin and homelands.[citation needed]

In addition to his career in dance, music, film and television, Gulpilil is also an acclaimed storyteller. He has written the text for two volumes of children's stories based on Yolngu beliefs. These books also feature photographs and drawings by Australian artists and convey Gulpilil's reverence for the landscape, people and traditional culture of his homeland. Gulpilil appeared in an autobiographical stage production, Gulpilil, in March 2004 at the Adelaide Festival of Arts 2004.[citation needed]

A documentary about his life, Gulpilil: One Red Blood, was aired on ABC Television in 2003. The title comes from a quote by Gulpilil: "We are all one blood. No matter where we are from, we are all one blood, the same".[citation needed]

In 2007, he starred in Richard Friar's hour-long independent documentary, Think About It! which was focussed on Indigenous rights and the anti-war movement and included commentary from former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, former Greens leader Bob Brown, and Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks.[10][11]

In 2015, Gulpilil appeared in the documentary Another Country directed by Molly Reynolds. The two worked together again when Reynolds directed a documentary about the actor's life, My Name Is Gulpilil. The film premiered at the 2021 Adelaide Festival.[12]

Legal cases[edit]

Offensive weapons charges[edit]

On 9 July 2006, Gulpilil was staying at the home of Vaughan Williams in Darwin, when an argument started over his drinking (Williams' home had a "no alcohol policy").[13] Williams asked Gulpilil, his wife and their friend (referred to as "JJ") to leave his home. During the argument, Williams and his friend allegedly armed themselves with a totem pole and a garden hoe. In response, Gulpilil produced a machete.[14]

Nobody was hurt in the altercation, but Gulpilil was charged with carrying an offensive weapon.

The defendant is an artist and a carver. He used the machete to carve didgeridoos, totem poles and strip stringy bark for paintings, [...] There is also evidence he used it to help him build shelters while out bush, like he had done shortly before arriving in Darwin.

— Magistrate Tanya Fong Lim[15]

Domestic violence charges[edit]

On 30 March 2007, a Darwin magistrate imposed a 12-month domestic violence order against Gulpilil over an incident which took place against his wife on 28 December 2006. Gulpilil has been ordered not to "assault or threaten to assault Miriam Ashley directly or indirectly", and to stay away from her while drinking.[16]

In December 2010, Gulpilil was charged with aggravated assault against Ashley, with the court hearing that he had thrown a broom at her, fracturing her arm. In September 2011, he was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months in prison.[17]

Honours and awards[edit]

Australia Council for the Arts[edit]

The Australia Council for the Arts arts funding and advisory body for the Government of Australia. Since 1993, it has awarded a Red Ochre Award. It is presented to an outstanding Indigenous Australian (Aboriginal Australian or Torres Strait Islander) artist for lifetime achievement.

Year Nominee / work Award Result
2013 himself Red Ochre Award Awarded

Gulpilil was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1987.[18] He was awarded the Centenary Medal in 2001.[19]

He has twice received the AACTA/AFI Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, for The Tracker in 2002 and Charlie's Country in 2014. He was also nominated for this award in 1977 for Storm Boy. Gulpilil was nominated for the AFI Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Rabbit-Proof Fence in 2002.

He was nominated for the Helpmann Award for Best Male Actor in a Play in 2004 for the stage production Gulpilil.[20] A portrait of Gulpilil by Craig Ruddy won the 2004 Archibald Prize, Australia's best-known art prize.[21]

In May 2014, Gulpilil won a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance in Rolf de Heer's film Charlie's Country. The award was in the Un Certain Regard section, a part of the festival that emphasises original, individual points of view and innovative film-making.[22][23]

In 2019, Gulpilil was honoured with the lifetime achievement award[24][25] at the 2019 NAIDOC Awards, and Premier's Award for Lifetime Achievement in the South Australian Ruby Awards.[26]

During The Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival at Winton, Queensland in 2021, Gulpilil was honoured with a star on Winton's Walk of Fame.[27]



Year Film Role Notes
1971 Walkabout Black boy Credited as David Gumpilil
1976 Mad Dog Morgan Billy
Storm Boy Fingerbone Bill Nominated—AACTA Award for Best Actor
1977 The Last Wave Chris Lee
1983 The Right Stuff Aborigine
1986 Crocodile Dundee Neville Bell
1987 Dark Age Adjaral
1988 Crocodile Dundee II Neville Bell
1991 Until the End of the World David
1996 Dead Heart Second Man in Desert
2001 Serenades Rainman
2002 The Tracker The Tracker AACTA Award for Best Actor
Cinemanila International Film Festival Award for Best Actor
FCCA Award for Best Actor
Inside Film Award for Best Actor
Rabbit-Proof Fence Moodoo Nominated—AACTA Award for Best Supporting Actor
2005 The Proposition Jacko
2006 Ten Canoes The Storyteller
2008 Australia King George
2013 Satellite Boy Jagamarra
2014 Charlie's Country Charlie AACTA Award for Best Actor
AFCA Award for Best Actor
AFCA Award for Best Screenplay
Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard for Best Actor
Nominated—AACTA Award for Best Original Screenplay (with Rolf de Heer)
Nominated—Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Actor
Nominated—Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard – Best Actor
Nominated—FCCA Award for Best Actor
Nominated—FCCA Award for Best Screenplay
2016 Goldstone Jimmy
Crazy Days at the Old Brumby Moon Old Mick
2017 Cargo Daku
2018 Storm Boy Father of Fingerbone Bill
2021 My Name is Gulpilil Himself


Year Film Role Notes
1972 Boney Balinga / Dancer / Tonto / David Ooldea
1974 Homicide Gary Willis
1976 Rush Satchel
1976 Luke's Kingdom Aboriginal Boy
1977 The Outsiders Billy Potter
1979 Skyways Koiranah
1980 The Timeless Land Colbee
1980 Young Ramsay Aborigine
1989 Naked Under Capricorn Activity
1995 The Man from Snowy River Manulpuy
2000 BeastMaster Shaman
2017 The Leftovers Christopher Sunday

Special awards[edit]

Ruby Award South Australia 2019


  1. ^ "David Gulpilil, Arnhem Land, 1981 (printed 2000)". National Portrait Gallery collection. 7 July 2021. Retrieved 11 July 2021.
  2. ^ "My Name Is Gulpilil". ABC iview. Retrieved 11 July 2021.
  3. ^ "Biography: Who is David Gulpilil?". gulpilil.com. 2001. Retrieved 22 April 2021.
  4. ^ Sunday Life
  5. ^ a b c National Archives of Australia 2008[dead link].
  6. ^ Kwan, Biwa. "Fans pay tribute to legendary actor David Gulpilil after he wins top NAIDOC award". SBS News. Special Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 8 July 2019.
  7. ^ Dunlop, Greg. "'Never forget me': NAIDOC gives David Gulpilil lifetime achievement award". NITV. Special Broadcasting Service. Retrieved 8 July 2019.
  8. ^ a b Pike, Andrew and Cooper, Ross (1998). Australian Film 1900–1977: A guide to feature film production. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
  9. ^ untitled
  10. ^ Burrell, Steve (14 July 2007). "Joining the dots along the chain of war". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 13 March 2021.
  11. ^ "Gulpilil says give peace a chance". Northern Rivers Echo. 16 February 2007.
  12. ^ Maddox, Garry (12 March 2021). "'I'm just trying to stay alive': as the end approaches, David Gulpilil is feted one more time". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 13 March 2021.
  13. ^ Gulpilil had right to carry machete, court told. 08/01/2007. ABC News Online
  14. ^ I grabbed machete in fear: Gulpilil – National – smh.com.au
  15. ^ Gulpilil machete accepted to be for 'cultural use' | NEWS.com.au {{webarchive|url=https://web.archive.org/web/20081201065701/http://www.news.com.au/story/0%2C23599%2C21037973-2%2C00.html |date=1 December 2008
  16. ^ Domestic violence order on Gulpilil – National – theage.com.au
  17. ^ Gulpilil jailed for assaulting wife, ABC News, 22 September 2011.
  18. ^ It's an Honour: AM. Retrieved 14 March 2015
  19. ^ It's an Honour: Centenary Medal. Retrieved 14 March 2015
  20. ^ "Past nominees and winners – Helpmann Awards". www.helpmannawards.com.au. Retrieved 8 July 2019.
  21. ^ "Archibald Prize Archibald 2004 finalist: David Gulpilil, two worlds by Craig Ruddy". www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au. Art Gallery of NSW. Retrieved 8 July 2019.
  22. ^ Bunbury, Stephanie (24 May 2014). "Australian actor David Gulpilil wins best actor award at Cannes Film Festival". The Age. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 24 May 2014.
  23. ^ "Un Certain Regard 2014 Awards". Festival de Cannes 2014. Archived from the original on 24 May 2014. Retrieved 23 May 2014.
  24. ^ "'Never forget me': NAIDOC gives David Gulpilil lifetime achievement award". NITV. Retrieved 6 July 2019.
  25. ^ Muller, Sarah (6 July 2019). "Renowned actor David Gulpilil receives top national NAIDOC award". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 6 July 2019.
  26. ^ Cabinet, Department of the Premier and (2 December 2019). "Ruby Awards". Department of the Premier and Cabinet. Retrieved 4 December 2019.
  27. ^ Booth, Kristen (30 June 2021). "David Gulpilil has been given a star on Winton's Walk of Fame". Central Queensland News. News Corp Australia. Retrieved 2 July 2021.

External links[edit]