His career spanned nearly 50 years and took Indigenous Australia to the world, but now Northern Territory actor David Dalaithngu AM has died.
Trailblazing and internationally acclaimed, David Dalaithngu walked tall in two culturesAKA David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu,....or David Gulpilil
At just 17 years old, when David Dalaithngu first touched down in Europe, he was the toast of the town — a young, handsome Aboriginal film actor from the remote Northern Territory who could hardly speak English.
In 1986's Crocodile Dundee — one of Australia's biggest ever film exports to the American market and a movie he would later decry as "bullshit" — Dalaithngu played the role of Neville Bell, a citified tribal man who had returned to the Top End to perform ceremony with his family.
In Storm Boy (1976) he was the lovable Fingerbone Bill, a role through which he captivated the nation's schoolchildren, who watched him teaching his traditional knowledge to a small South Australian lad in the Coorong.
By his own accounts, Dalaithngu also dabbled in the universe of celebrity excess — he partied with Beatle John Lennon, smoked weed with Bob Marley and had "crazy" times with Hopper.
To him, acting could be "a piece of cake".
"When the camera rolls, I be someone else," he said while shooting The Tracker.
After being introduced to grog and ganja on the set of Walkabout when he was still a teenager, the actor wrestled with the demon of alcoholism throughout his life.
It was a struggle which led to his lowest moments: camping in the long grass as an itinerant in Darwin and being thrown into the NT's Berrimah jail for assaulting his wife.
Although he made hundreds of thousands of dollars for his high-profile movie roles, at times he remained penniless, living in a shack constructed from corrugated iron he'd scrounged from the tip.
"Big name, no blanket."
"When I get paid for a film, I share with family, that's what I do with my money … I could've been a million-dollar man," he said in One Red Blood.
In a video acceptance speech in which he revealed he was dying from cancer, a greyed Dalaithngu told the audience: "To everyone, thank you for watching 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.
Narrated by Dalaithngu himself and directed by another of his long-time collaborators Molly Reynolds, who is married to De Heer, the film chronicles his life and singular achievements as an Australian actor.
In the film, seen visibly ailing while under around-the-clock care in Murray Bridge, he appears as a man calmed by his connection to a rich tradition and culture, comfortable with his own mortality.
An initiated Yolngu man of the Mandhalpuyngu, Dalaithngu never lost his connection to language, song, law and country.
"I am the Mandhalpuyngu … the water goanna dreaming, and my sons and daughters too," he once said.
"Where is promised land — there is Mandhalpuyngu."