Uncle Jack Charles, Indigenous actor and activist, dies aged 79

Artists across Australia have paid tribute to Charles, who died following a stroke, as a ‘true Australian legend’

Indigenous actor, musician, artist and activist Uncle Jack Charles has died at the age of 79.

His publicist confirmed on Tuesday morning Charles had suffered a stroke and died at Royal Melbourne hospital.

The beloved Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Yorta Yorta elder was farewelled by family with a smoking ceremony at the hospital.

“We are so proud of everything he has achieved in his remarkable life – elder, actor, musician, potter, activist, mentor, a household name and voice loved by all – as is demonstrated by his numerous awards including this year’s NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year,” the statement said.

“He will live on in our hearts and memories and through his numerous screen and stage roles.”

On Tuesday the minister for Indigenous affairs, Linda Burney, said Charles was “a ground-breaking storyteller and activist who brought people in with his warmth and grace, never shying away from his past and who he was.”

“[He] offered a window for many Australians to see the enduring pain of survivors of the stolen generations and inspired people with his strength of character and resilience,” she said in a statement.

On Twitter, rapper Briggs paid tribute: “You’d never have met a more warm, funny & friendly soul,” he wrote. “Uncle Jack & Uncle Arch [Archie Roach] gonna be in good company wherever they’re at.”

I met Uncle Jack Charles doing Cleverman. You’d never have met a more warm, funny & friendly soul. Uncle Jack & Uncle Arch gonna be in good company wherever they’re at. pic.twitter.com/qhBCc5qkgN

— Senator Briggs (@Briggs) September 13, 2022

Born in 1943, Charles was a stolen generations survivor. Speaking to the Guardian Australia podcast Full Story, he said of his birth: “I was supposed to be taken from my mother’s breast directly by the Aboriginal protection mob, placed into a baby city mission … But it didn’t happen. [My mother] managed to sneak me out [of hospital].”

Four months later he was retrieved by the state and taken to a city mission, where he lived until he was two years old. He was then moved to a boys’ home, where he suffered child sexual abuse.

In April this year, Charles was the first witness to tell his story in Victoria’s Indigenous truth-telling commission. He was the only First Nations child at the home, and grew up believing he was an orphan. “I wasn’t even told I was Aboriginal – I had to discover that for myself,” he told the commission.

At the age of 17 he heard word that his mother was alive and living in Swan Hill. When he passed the news on to his foster mother, he was removed from foster care and placed in juvenile detention. “I do remember crying myself to sleep,” he recalled.

Charles endured multiple incarcerations for burglary and drug offences in his younger years, and struggled at times with heroin addiction and coming to terms with his sexuality.

In a 2014 interview with Guardian Australia, he said he had steered clear of a prison cell for more than decade. “When I came out of jail this last time I came out a self-proclaimed ‘lore’ man. I knew I had knowledge to share,” he said.

In 1971, with Bob Maza, Charles co-founded Australia’s first Indigenous theatre group, Nindethana, at Melbourne’s Pram Factory.

“Once the industry realised that there were Aboriginals playing Aboriginals they had to stop blacking white people to play Aboriginals,” he said in a recent video for NITV. “It was a big wake-up call for the arts industry.”

The following year he was passed over for the role of Indigenous detective Boney in the Australian television series of the same name. The part went to New Zealand actor James Laurenson, who wore black face makeup for the role.

Charles forged a name for himself over five decades, in films such as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Bedevil, Blackfellas, Tom White and Pan.

More recently, Charles appeared in the horror drama series Wolf Creek and in the ABC television drama series Cleverman and in the ABC comedy Preppers.

In 2015, he was named Victorian Senior Australian of the Year; that night, he was denied a ride home from Docklands unless he paid the taxi driver upfront.

Two years earlier, he had been turned away by a Sydney taxi driver Charles had called to take him to his performance at Belvoir Theatre.

Charles continued up until his death to advocate for the rights of young Indigenous men in custody.

In 2019, Charles called on the Victorian government to establish regional Indigenous community centres to tackle increased incarceration of young Indigenous men. “We need to stop the tides of young ones going into our lock-ups and prisons,” he said. “When they get there, there are three police officers assigned to a prisoner, which makes it overbearing – it’s hard to reach out to anybody when they have such anger towards the system and the officers.”

In 2014, Charles became the first Indigenous recipient of a Green Room award for lifetime achievement. In 2019 he was recognised by the Australia Council with a Red Ochre award also for lifetime achievement.

His memoir – Jack Charles: Born-Again Blakfella – was published in 2020, co-written with Namila Benson.

In July, he was named male elder of the year during Naidoc week.

First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria Co-chair Marcus Stewart said Uncle Jack left a powerful and strong legacy overcoming trauma, loss and pain with humour, grace and resilience. “Uncle Jack lived an amazing life,” the Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung nation said. “They couldn’t keep him down, he persisted against all the odds overcoming every challenge thrown his way.”

The actor David Wenham described him as a “great actor, great social activist, great human being”. The singer and actor David Campbell called him a “true Australian legend”.

Magda Szubanski wrote that she was devastated to hear the news. “He was just the absolute best and this is such a loss. RIP my darling.” Author Anita Heiss wrote: “The beauty of your spirit and the gift of your storytelling will live on forever.”

The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, also paid tribute on Twitter: “What a life. What a storyteller. Unforgettable wit and energy and generosity and courage.”

The Guardian has received permission to use his name and image.

Contributor

Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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