Today, 8th January 2016, is the 20th anniversary of the passing of one of Australia’s finest actors, John Hargreaves.
Cut down in his prime at just 50, Hargreaves is still fondly remembered by those he worked with such as Judy Davis, Diana McLean, Bryan Brown, Denise Roberts and Mercia Deane Johns.
Born in the small town of Murwillumbah on the New South Wales/Queensland border in 1945, he moved to Sydney in the 1960s. In his early career he was a teacher in the Western NSW town of Mendooran but on seeing a group of travelling players put on a production he decided there and then that they were having more fun than he was and it was then that he decided to become an actor.
John graduated from NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) in Sydney in 1970. He won several awards, including one for best actor for Long Weekend at the 11th International Festival of Horror and Fantasy Films, Spain.
His many film credits include Don’s Party, The Removalists, Mad Dog Morgan, The Odd Angry Shot, Emerald City, Country Life, Hotel Sorrento, My First Wife, Careful He Might Hear You, Malcolm, A Good Thing Going, Lust and Revenge, and Cry Freedom.
On television he starred in such ground-breaking series as The Leaving Of Liverpool, Scales Of Justice, The Dismissal, and Power Without Glory.
John launched his film career with The Removalists in 1974, an adaptation of David Williamson’s play directed by Tom Jeffrey, with Peter Cummins and also featuring a young Kate Fitzpatrick.
His first big film role was that of schoolteacher Don Henderson in Don’s Party in 1976. Based on the play by David Williamson who also wrote the screenplay, it is set on the night of the 1969 Australian federal election. Directed by Bruce Beresford, it also stars Aussie stalwarts like Graham Kennedy, Ray Barrett, Jeannie Drynan and Pat Bishop who won an Australian Film Institute (AFI) Award as best actress for her portrayal as Jenny. While the film features many good looking actresses such as Veronica Lang, Pat Bishop, Candy Raymond and Clare Binney the emphasis is on male nudity, especially the hilarious scene when the drunken larrikins continue their political machinations in the buff at midnight in the swimming pool.
From 1977 to 1980 he appeared as Young Ramsay, a city vet who goes to practice in the country. The 26 episodes featured many future names such as Mercia Deane Johns, Sigrid Thornton, Max Cullen, John Howard (the actor, not the future PM!) and Judith McGrath.
In 1979 he starred with Bryan Brown and Graham Kennedy in The Odd Angry Shot, one of the very few Australian films that deals with the Vietnam War, and it does so through the eyes of professional soldiers, rather than officers or conscripts. Shot largely in Queensland, it tended to be humorous rather than anti-war. The American war in Vietnam had ended only four years before and the film was criticised by some for not condemning Australia’s participation in absolute terms, even though the issue is discussed at the end.
In 1981 he starred with Judy Davis in the film Hoodwink which was inspired by the true story of Carl Synnerdahl, a notorious Australian criminal and bank robber. The film tells the story of how loveable rogue Martin Stang (Hargreaves) manages to fool lawyers, cops, screws, and the prison system. Stang finds himself behind bars and decides to pursue another con job; his escape. He does this by attempting to convince prison authorities that he is blind and no longer poses a threat to society. With prison doctors and specialists unable to work out whether Martin’s faking it, his blindness attracts the attention of a devout Christian, Sarah (Judy Davis), the sexually repressed wife of a local lay preacher. Their subsequent friendship, with her believing that he is really blind, leads to many humorous scenes. Though an interesting story, it did not do particularly well at the Australian box office.
I will always remember John for his performance as Marxist activist Jeff Elliott in The Killing of Angel Street directed by Donald Crombie in 1981. His character is based on the union leader and environmental activist Jack Mundey who is still alive at 86. The film which won an honourable mention at the Berlin Film Festival of 1982 was based on the disappearance and presumed murder of green activist Juanita Nielsen in 1975. The casting proved difficult as first Julie Christie and then Helen Morse turned down the female lead role which eventually went to Elizabeth (billed as `Liz`) Alexander. The late Bill Hunter had been first choice to play union leader Jeff Elliott but director Donald Crombie felt he was insufficiently romantic and cast John Hargreaves instead, opining that “Casting is alchemy.” Bill Hunter was furious and reportedly never spoke to Crombie again.
What was more difficult still was the controversial subject matter which dealt with the (to this day) unsolved murder of Juanita Nielsen. The film is based on the real life events that surrounded the fight by activists in the 1970s in Kings Cross to save terraced working class housing in Victoria Street from destruction by developers. As director Donald Crombie explains, “I think it’s important to fully understand the Sydney of the mid 1970s and in particular, urban renewal, Juanita Nielsen and the sinister nexus between business, government and the police at that time.”
Crombie further explained the dissatisfaction of people in high places with the proposed film when its producer Tony Buckley was phoned by a government minister. The (unnamed) minister said it might not be a good idea to go ahead with a film about the disappearance of Juanita Nielsen because “Things could happen.” Things apparently like finding your number plates missing or your dog dead on your lawn. The same official pointed out that Crombie the director had young children. At the time, Donald Crombie and his wife Judy lived in a house with no lockable garage and for a few weeks they had a horrible expectant feeling every time they turned on the ignition of their car it may be rigged to a bomb.
Juanita’s disappearance and killing was widely attributed directly or indirectly to the (then living) Abe Saffron or `Mr Sin`. Saffron who died in 2006 was a nightclub owner, property developer and Sydney strongman who it was dangerous to cross. Saffron was behind the crime scene and flourishing illegal casinos. Donald Crombie commented that the police strangely could not find any illicit gambling joints despite their addresses being known to every cab driver in the city!
In the film, Jessica (Liz Alexander), daughter of an activist who has been murdered by the thugs, is joined by Jeff Elliott (John Hargreaves), a union leader who tries to organise a ‘green ban’ by workers which will see work on the site stop. They come up against the `unholy trinity` who are, as Elliott puts it: “Big business out to make a buck and not too fussy, organised crime looking for a laundry for some dirty money and the government who has to protect the property owner. Bang!” Then he asks rhetorically: “So the police and the thugs are working against you, can you win?”
The hoodlums working with the police set Jessica up with bogus charges of drunkenness, soliciting and assault. The nasty station sergeant arranges a demeaning personal body search by two police women harpies which leaves Jessica in tears and angry at her co-campaigner Jeff who seems a little insensitive upon hearing her story.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the film is when the heavies dangle a terrified Jessica over the edge of a 50-storey Sydney skyscraper to scare her off.
The pairing of Hargreaves and Liz (as she was billed) Alexander does work and while the film is low on sexual content it purportedly contains the ‘greatest screen kiss in motion picture history’.
Sadly, this excellent film has only been shown once on British TV and it is now difficult to get a DVD copy of it.
One of the enduring images of John is that famous still of him in Don’s Party where he is standing in the middle with Ray Barrett to his left and Graham `Gra Gra` Kennedy on his right. Standing half a head taller than them in his tuxedo, he had 007 written all over him. I wonder what he would have made of that comment. He would probably have just given one of his little ironic laughs.
John was content to live in his native Australia, shunning Hollywood where he surely would have made it big. He abhorred the “hoopla” of film festivals and what he deemed “the cocktail party circuit.” When told that Hollywood wanted him he laughed in his inimitable way, saying: “Why would I want to go to Hollywood? I’m having too much fun here.”
In 1983 when still just in his 30s. John played the part of 62-year-old Deputy Prime Minister to Gough Whitlam, Dr Jim Cairns in the miniseries The Dismissal. He was so heavily made up as to be unrecognisable.
In 1994, just two years before his premature death, John was awarded the prestigious Bryon Kennedy award by The Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA). The award was given: “Not only for the brilliance and daring of his acting, but for his ability to inspire. When Hargreaves is around, everybody gives their best.”
I will mention his sexuality only in passing. John was gay, which would have surprised many of his countless female fans as he was so often cast as a romantic lead. Actress Carole Skinner (Mary Ford in Heatwave and Nola McKenzie in Prisoner) says she fell in love with him the first time they met.
He sadly contracted AIDS around 1994 and died in a hospice on 8th January 1996. Donald Crombie said that one of the saddest things of his life was that he did not go to see John when he was in the hospice dying of AIDS. He heard retrospectively that John had asked to see him, and for the price of a plane ticket he could have seen Hargreaves one last time. But alas, he wasn’t to know.
John won two Best Supporting Actor awards from the Australian Film Institute for Careful, He Might Hear You (1984) and Malcolm (1986). His last appearance was a cameo in Paul Cox’s Lust and Revenge (1996).
It’s hard to believe that John’s been gone two decades already. He leaves a huge legacy of many theatre and television credits and his tall, slim, good looking frame and larrikin laugh will live on forever in his classic Aussie films.