Born: c. July 1, 1953;

Died: November 29, 2021.

DAVID Gulpilil, who has died aged 68 after suffering from lung cancer, was Australia’s best-known Indigenous actor, having first made an impression on worldwide audiences with a mesmerising performance in the film, Walkabout.

Chosen for his dancing abilities and his lack of inhibition in front of the camera, Gulpilil was only 16 at the time he took part in the 1970 film, as was Jenny Agutter, who played a girl who is stranded with her younger brother in the Outback. Wearing just a loincloth, Gulpilil moves nimbly and swiftly as the Indigenous boy who helps them to survive and opens up a world beyond their white culture.

After giving a lesson in tapping a water source in the desert, he shares kangaroo meat with them from his hunting and, together, they develop sign language to communicate.

The movie came at the start of a decade when Australian cinema underwent a revival with a new wave of film-making led by directors such as Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Phillip Noyce and Gillian Armstrong, telling the country’s stories from its own point of view, not a British one, and giving an alternative to the American culture in Hollywood films.

With some irony, it was the British director Nicolas Roeg, with American funding, that helped to get this underway with Walkabout, the playwright Edward Bond’s loose adaptation of James Vance Marshall’s 1959 novel.

Agutter’s brother was played by Luc (billed as Lucien John), the son of Roeg, who – directing by himself for the first time – began to establish his style in this story of spiritual and sexual awakening. Visually stunning, the film was also mystical and haunting, and used techniques such as juxtaposition, flashback and allegory.

Just as a sensual love scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie would form a part of his next film, Don’t Look Now, Roeg shot a “Garden of Eden” sequence – adolescents losing their innocence – with Gulpilil and Agutter naked in a lake.

Although Walkabout received worldwide recognition – Gulpilil wore a Hong Kong-made suit for the London premiere and a meeting with the Queen, and the film was screened at Cannes – Walkabout was not so well received in Australia.

The actor eventually joined the home-driven New Wave, and added English to the many Indigenous languages he had already mastered, first in Mad Dog Morgan (1976), in which he was befriended by a bushranger (played by Dennis Hopper, who in real life Gulpilil blamed for getting him hooked on drink and drugs). It was another film that fared less well in its home market than abroad.

More enduring was the supernatural thriller The Last Wave (1977), directed by Peter Weir. It featured Gulpilil as one of five Indigenous Australians charged with murder, who becomes spiritual guide to their lawyer, played by Richard Chamberlain – one of many roles where his character comes into contact with white culture.

In a different vein, he played Paul Hogan’s humorous bush-walking friend in the comedy Crocodile Dundee (1986). Later, in director Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), he was a police force’s tracker hunting three mixed-race children who have escaped internment, in a story about the real-life “stolen generation” taken from their mothers to train as domestic servants for white families.

Two of the three films in which he starred for director Rolf de Heer earned Gulpilil Best Actor awards from the Australian film industry, beginning with the title role in The Tracker (2002).

Ten Canoes (2006), in which Gulpilil was the storyteller, was shot among Gulpilil’s own community in Arnhem Land, and was the first movie made entirely in Indigenous Australian languages.

Later came Charlie’s Country (2013), a semi-autobiographical story written by the actor and director about an elder in a remote Aboriginal community struggling to hold on to his culture, battling drink and spending time in prison. The performance also won Gulpilil a Best Actor award at Cannes.

Charlie’s Country was premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival two years after he had been jailed for assaulting his partner. He used his time in prison to wean himself off his addictions.

Gulpilil’s other roles included a tribal elder in Australia (2008), director Baz Luhrmann’s sweeping epic starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.

Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu was born under a tree around July 1, 1953, a date calculated by missionaries, into the Yolngu people’s Mandhalpingu clan. He was raised in Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, and named David at school.

The only films he saw as a child were Westerns and, by the age of 15, he was an accomplished hunter, tracker and ceremonial tribal dancer. Those skills were spotted by Roeg when he scouted Arnhem Land to find his Indigenous character for Walkabout.

In the popular 1976 family drama Storm Boy, Gulpilil played a loner who forms a bond with a boy and his father, alongside the one the boy develops with a pelican named Mr Percival.

My Name Is Gulpilil, an acclaimed documentary directed by Molly Reynolds and released earlier this year, told the actor’s remarkable story. Gulpilil was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1987. He is survived by seven children from different relationships.