Theatre's 'giant amongst men' takes final bow
Acclaimed: Bille Brown. Photo: Jeff Busby
WHEN Bille Brown went to university, he intended to become a teacher, but turned to acting instead. His generation learned from literature, music, history and touring companies, he recalled in November: ''Bugs Bunny was as good an acting teacher as [US drama coach] Lee Strasberg.''
Brown died on Sunday at the Holy Spirit Northside Hospital in Chermside, Brisbane, two days after hosting his 61st birthday from his hospital bed, which became a final farewell. His sister Rita and friends were with him at the end. Brown had been quietly fighting bowel cancer for 12 months.
Two months ago, Brown had described himself as a ''sweaty old character actor''. But he was so much more: he played Oscar Wilde on stage at Belvoir Street Theatre in The Judas Kiss in 1999, the last moments of which Cate Blanchett has said are ''burnt in her memory''.
''Audiences have lost one of this country's most unique, exuberant and accurate theatrical creatures,'' said Blanchett and her husband, Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Andrew Upton. ''The theatre community has lost a mentor, a maniac and an inspiration. A glorious human being who will be sorely missed and always remembered.''
Sir Ian McKellen, who played Widow Twankey in an updated 2005 version of the pantomime Aladdin, written by Brown, said in a statement to his ''Dearest Bille'' that he was glad the actor managed a good birthday with his usual style: ''Let go when you are ready, dear heart, and hold close to the certainty that your life is admirable in every way,'' McKellen said. ''You are a giant amongst men.''
TV viewers knew him from series such as Rake and Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. In 2011, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).
As a boy in the Queensland coal, wheat and cotton town of Biloela, Brown performed little pieces at the local theatre, which backed onto a pub. His father Bill, a former stockman, would enter through the back door, watch the boy Bille's bit and quietly leave, never letting on he'd been there.
''I am not a star but I am famous in Biloela, where I grew up,'' Brown once wrote, ''and all fame is local and subject to the indifferent stroke of time's air brush.''
Brown would memorably go on to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, however, writing and acting in Britain and Europe, for Broadway and off-Broadway. He'd be directed by his old university buddy Geoffrey Rush and would in turn direct John Cleese's one-man shows, ''in so far as that is possible''.
Last September, he was nominated for a Helpmann award for best male actor for his tour de force performance in the Malthouse/STC production of The Histrionic, playing a bullying clapped-out theatre maker called Bruscon.
A few months earlier, Brown told Fairfax Media the role ''nearly f---ing killed me''. He complained that the ''mental and psychic'' energy required to fuel the role left him ''physically and mentally exhausted, which was different from tired … I'd find myself sometimes waking up and saying the lines''.
Daniel Schlusser, who directed The Histrionic (which would turn out to be Brown's last stage performance), said that Brown's contradictions were his strength: ''The man is built like a mallee bull, but you realise that his whole physicality has something of a vulnerability … he might look like he'll pummel you into the floor, but his acting is extremely rich and vulnerable and kind of beautiful.''
Brown earned an Olivier nomination as the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz on the London stage, though not before a winged ''monkey'' carrying Toto in one performance prematurely flew out of the darkness, crashing him to the stage floor. He broke his ankle and children screamed.
His family said in a statement: ''Bille Brown AM was a celebrated actor, acclaimed playwright and an honoured Australian. He was a larger than life character, with an infectious and warm personality.
''Bille had the utmost respect of his peers and a huge heart … His passing deeply saddens us. We thank the arts community for their support at this sensitive time.''