The Godfather: Peter Corris on as-told-to autobiographies Part 3
Actor Bill Hunter had come off a run of three highly successful films – Strictly Ballroom (1992), Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) – and his agent thought the time had come for an autobiography. Bill had become known as the ‘voice of Australia’ as the result of a set of highly successful commercials for BHP and his stocks were high. His agent contacted a publisher, the publisher contacted my agent (probably because I had worked with Ray Barrett on his autobiography) and I was commissioned to collaborate on the book. I was enthusiastic: not only had I seen those films and admired Bill’s work in them but I’d also seen him in other films like Newsfront (1978) and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978). I had a friend who’d acted for him in legal matters and all I’d heard about him suggested to me that he was a good bloke.
We met in Byron Bay and I liked his bluff, knockabout manner. He was originally from Victoria, as I was, and we quickly established that, like me, he was a lifelong and passionate supporter of the Essendon AFL club. It was clear that we’d get along and we did. Over the next few months we met, mostly in pub beer gardens, sometimes in hotels in northern New South Wales, southern Queensland, Brisbane and Sydney. There was of course a great deal of information, much of it inaccurate, in newspaper articles about Bill and the films he’d appeared in and I read this and used it as a basis for my interviews.
Bill was only a little older than me and we shared many memories, mainly sporting. I learned that he had left school early, had been a drover and had become an outstanding swimmer, claiming the second-fastest time in the world for the 100-metre freestyle after Olympian John Devitt. Only a bout of sickness, he said, prevented him from gaining Olympic selection.
Bill secured a job as an extra on the 1959 film On the Beach, appeared briefly in a couple of action scenes and caught the acting bug. He claimed to have taught the children of one of the stars, Gregory Peck, to swim, and to have had a brief affair with Ava Gardner.
His story, as it unrolled, was full of interest – time in London hob-nobbing with ‘faces’, including members of the gang who pulled off the Great Train Robbery, gambling with John Lennon and associating with top-line boxers and actors like Terence Stamp and Tim Roth. He married several times, always tumultuously, and was broke at some times and affluent at others.
Bill led a bohemian life when in the city and a bushie existence when in the country. He worked in the outback with Aborigines and served short terms in lockups for such offences as ‘drunk and disorderly’, ‘resist police’ and ‘destroy property’. Altogether it made an exciting cavalcade, with awards for acting and periods of heavy drinking that caused blackouts.
He drank heavily during our sessions, beer only, and consumed many cigarettes. He tired towards the end of these meetings but he made telling comments about other actors, about directors and the profession in general. He appeared to have very good recall and his account of incidents, like witnessing a London criminal nailing the feet of an informer to the floor, were graphic.
When completed, the manuscript was a little short and I’d spotted a few places where I thought his memory might be … astray. I planned to deal with these in a wind-up session but he was busy at the time and I sent him the manuscript and my tape recorder asking him to elaborate on some points to bulk the book out. I heard nothing for some time, wrote to him, but never heard from him again.
Some time later I heard that Bill’s agent had repaid the advances he and I had received from the publisher and that the project was abandoned. I was told that when he read the manuscript, Bill realised that some things he had said were exaggerated or untrue and that others would know. Disappointing.
I retain the tapes of our interviews and the transcripts and could make them available to anyone wanting to write a full-scale biography of Bill Hunter, who died in 2011. But the information would need very careful checking.
My last co-authorship was with Dr Philip Nitschke. I’ve already devoted a column to the indefatigable euthanasia campaigner, whose struggles against officialdom continue, and I don’t propose to say any more except that I continue to support him wholeheartedly. I’d add that my contribution to the book we produced in 2013, Damned If I Do, is work of which I remain very proud.