Iconic Australian Actor David Dalaithngu Dies Aged 68

By Steve Milne
Steve Milne
Steve Milne
November 29, 2021 Updated: November 30, 2021

Famous Australian Indigenous actor, dancer, and artist David Dalaithngu has died of lung cancer at his home in Murray Bridge, South Australia aged 68.

The legendary actor, who appeared in films such as “Walkabout,” “Storm Boy,” “Crocodile Dundee,” and “Rabbit-Proof Fence” succumbed to the illness on Monday after being diagnosed in 2017.

Born in 1953 in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Dalaithngu had a traditional upbringing, and after his coming of age, was initiated into the Mandipingu tribal group of the Yolngu people.

According to a website honouring the actor, he became a skilled tribal dancer and caught the eye of British film maker Nicolas Roeg, who cast the then sixteen-year-old in a leading role in his motion picture “Walkabout,” which first screened in 1970.

Dalaithgnu became an instant celebrity due to his on-screen charisma, and went on to have a successful film career spanning 50 years.

He played a lead role in the critically acclaimed film “Storm Boy” in 1976, and stole the screen in the 1977 film “The Last Wave” with his performance as a tribal Aboriginal man.

In the 1986 film “Crocodile Dundee,” which was the second highest grossing film in the United States that year, Dalaithgnu played Mick Dundee’s comical Aboriginal friend. In one scene, reporter Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski) asked if she can take his photo, to which he says no. She says, “I’m sorry, you believe it will take your spirit way,” to which he replies, “Nah, you got lens cap on.”

In 2002, he played the role of the tracker in “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” and in the same year played a starring role in the film “The Tracker.”

The film “Ten Canoes” (2006), which he initiated and narrated, won a Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.

Then, in 2008, Dalaithngu joined Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia.”

After hearing of Dalaithngu’s passing, Jackman paid tribute to the legendary actor.

“I join all Australians, and the world over, in mourning the loss of David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu,” he posted on Instagram. He added that one of his greatest privileges was his time spent working with David on the film “Australia.”

Aside from acting, Dalaithngu was one of the most renowned traditional dancers in his country, organising dance troupes and musicians, as well as performing at festivals all over Australia. This included the Darwin Australia Day Eisteddfod dance competition, which he won four times.

In addition, he was an acclaimed storyteller, writing two volumes of children’s stories based on Yolngu beliefs.

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall also paid tribute to Dalaithngu.

“It is with deep sadness that I share with the people of South Australia the passing of an iconic, once-in-a-generation artist who shaped the history of Australian film and Aboriginal representation on screen—David Dalaithngu AM,” he said in a social media post.

“He was a man who loved his land and his culture, and he was a man who took it to the world.”

Dalaithngu struggled to balance life between the two worlds he inhabited. He encountered racism and discrimination during his career, and battled with alcoholism and depression.

In an interview in 1979, Australian renowned film director Peter Weir said of Dalaithngu: “He has a foot in both cultures. It’s an enormous strain on the man.”

After spending a year in prison for aggravated assault in 2010,  Dalaithngu directed his attention back to serving his own Indigenous community, focusing primarily on Aboriginal youth issues. He also put his weight behind the pursuit of tribal land claims for Indigenous people, and called for compensation for the Stolen Generations.

Dalaithngu was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1987, and won numerous awards throughout his career, including the AACTA/FA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role twice, Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, and the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 NAIDOC Awards.

Olympic champion Cathy Freeman farewelled the legend in an Instagram post.

“Thank you for the inspiration, David Gulpilil. Rest In Peace,” she said.

The actor’s family has given permission for his name and image to continue to be used, requesting he be referred to as David Dalaithngu.

Steve Milne