I have been wondering how many actors and actresses from my hometown of Perth, Western Australia have become nationally or internationally known. Upon doing a little research I have unearthed quite a few, the most famous of them being, of course, the late and wonderfully talented Heath Ledger. My family has a tiny connection with his, in that my son, Tim, once fitted some windows (or was it roofing?) in Heath’s parents’ home, not too far from where I live in Ardross, a suburb of Perth. I did not know the man myself but, like most people, I have admired his work. I hope the few words I have written here do him justice. From all accounts he was a fine person.
Oscar-winning actor Heath Ledger was born in Perth, Western Australia in 1979. He and his sister, Kate, were named for the two lovers in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, so it kind of followed that he (or she) might venture into the acting profession one day. Heath was not the first movie star to make it from Perth, but he was undoubtedly the most famous. Sadly, his meteoric rise to cinema prominence was cut short in Manhattan on 22 January 2008 and, suddenly, he was gone at 28.
After tasting a little success in Sydney via small TV appearances, Heath decided to move to the USA in 1998, hoping to advance his career. He did not have to wait long. His outstanding performance in the lead in Two Hands (1999), a picture directed by Australian Gregor Jordan, got him noticed at once. Almost immediately, he was cast in 10 Things I Hate about You (1999), followed by The Patriot (2000), alongside screen legend Mel Gibson. A starring role in the rather ordinary A Knight’s Tale the next year, nevertheless, sent his career rocketing skyward.
Heath entered into relationships with some very beautiful actresses in Hollywood. First there was Billy Zane’s older sister, 36 year-old Lisa, then pretty Julia Stiles, before Heather Graham and he hit it off for a while. After that was lovely Australian star Naomi Watts, their relationship lasting almost two years. In 2005, Heath’s fiancée, Michelle Williams, gave birth to their daughter, Matilda, but the relationship cooled in 2007. Perth-born super model Gemma Ward became his next partner for a while. Rumour has it he had flings with Kate Hudson and Lindsay Lohan along the way, and was seeing Mary-Kate Olsen at the time of his death.
His portrayal of Ned Kelly in the 2003 film of the same name has been labelled a ‘huge flop’ by most critics yet, for the life of me, I cannot see why. I have watched it several times and Heath, Orlando Bloom, Naomi Watts and Geoffrey Rush are all very good. The movie itself is very good, so why did it ‘flop’? I thought his Ned Kelly was the only portrayal of this national icon that has not made me feel embarrassed to be an Australian. Personally, I have never shared my countrymen’s enthusiasm for Ned. He murdered policemen, end of story. But Heath Ledger gave him some substance, and I finally started to understand the man. I thank him for that, and often wonder if he felt let down by the public’s response to what I feel was one of his best performances.
In all Heath made just 19 films, culminating in his ‘off the wall’ portrayal of The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. He deservedly won him a Supporting Actor Oscar, but did not live long enough to receive it. On 22 January 2008, in Manhattan, his housekeeper discovered him unconscious on his bed. He had accidentally overdosed on prescription drugs; anti-anxiety medication, painkillers and sleeping pills. He always had trouble sleeping. Although his death has always been classed as ‘accidental’, questions later arose regarding how his body was found to contain prescription chemicals that had not been prescribed by his own doctors (he had two of them). Suspicion fell on Mary-Kate Olsen, his girlfriend at the time, and whether or not she may have given him other prescriptions that, mixed with his own, had proven fatal. A lengthy investigation eventually exonerated her. Heath’s funeral was held at home, his ashes interred near his grand-parents in Karrakatta Cemetery in Perth. Who knows what heights he may have risen to in his profession? A tragic end to a life filled with such promise.
As The Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)
Below are a handful of actors born in Perth or Western Australia’s country towns. A few may surprise you as they did me. There are also a couple whom I feel sure are unknown to most Australians, indeed almost surely forgotten by the rest of the movie world as well. Somehow, I do not think that will ever apply to Heath Ledger. His niche in movie history is assured. Little comfort to his loved ones I’m sure, but there for all time, nonetheless.
M.E. Clifton-James (1898 – 1963)
One of Perth’s first ‘stars’, although few people today remember him, was a man named Meyrick Edward Clifton James. His one moment of fame, (and a substantial one it was), came during the Second World War while he was stationed in England as a member of the Royal Army Pay Corps. During an amateur theatrical production in which he was taking part, he walked onto the stage wearing a beret; to be greeted by a spontaneous eruption of cheering and clapping from the entire audience. Everyone thought he was Britain’s wartime hero, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, paying them an unscheduled visit. The resemblance was uncanny, so much so, that MI5 (military intelligence) decided to make use of it.
Clifton James as Montgomery in ‘I Was Monty’s Double’ (1958)
Lieutenant-Colonel David Niven (yes, the actor) was despatched to contact James and recruit his services. After a few months of intense preparation he was eventually ready to impersonate Monty for a few vital weeks in Operation Copperhead. Soon he was being shuttled around the Middle East, dressed as Monty, (to all intents and purposes he was Montgomery as far as the Germans were concerned), as part of the overall plan to convince the Nazis that the Allied Second Front would be launched at Pas de Calais, and not at Normandy. As a final touch, he was kept in Cairo until after the invasion was well and truly underway. German Intelligence did not believe the Allies would launch their Second Front without Montgomery, so that aspect of the plan also succeeded.
Perfecting and maintaining the deception was not without its difficulties. James had a drinking problem, whereas Montgomery didn’t touch the stuff. James also smoked and Monty did not. Their personalities were miles apart, in fact, so James had to study the Field Marshal’s every nuance. The Australian was also minus a finger on his right hand (courtesy of his time on the Somme in WW1), so a prosthetic one was made. Despite these problems, the deception worked beautifully, the Germans were fooled, and the Normandy landings ultimately led to victory. Fourteen years later, in 1958, a movie was released about all this. The original title was I Was Monty’s Double. It starred, among others, John Mills; and it also featured James playing both himself and Montgomery. It would be the extent of his entire movie career. For reasons known only to the makers, the picture’s title was later changed to, Hell, Heaven or Hoboken, presumably for the American market.
James was pretty much ignored after his five weeks as Monty were up. He went back to the pay corps and continued on as before. In 1954 he wrote a book on his exploits, and this formed the basis for the movie. When he died in England in 1963, Montgomery was interviewed and asked to comment. ‘He was not a friend of mine’, he sniffed. ‘Only met him once. Of course he observed me a great deal. He did a very good job, very good job, and fooled the Germans at a critical time of the war. I am very sorry to hear of his death.’ Most Australians would be unaware that he ever even lived. His passing went un-noticed here.
Allan Cuthbertson (1920 – 1988)
Cuthbertson was one of those character actors whose face we instantly recognize, but whose name forever escapes us. He performed on stage and radio in Perth from an early age before joining the RAF in 1941 and being stationed in England, mostly as a Flight-Lieutenant, for the next six years. It was this military background that led him to appear in several films and TV series after that, usually as a stuffy, overbearing ‘officer-type’. Indeed, he was virtually typecast in such roles, which was a pity really because he was a fine actor. I remember him well in The Guns of Navarone (1961) (seen here below), and as a (stuffy) Colonel Hall in a hilarious (weren’t they all) 1975 episode of Fawlty Towers. He passed away in England in 1988.
Allan Cuthbertson in ‘The Guns of Navarone’ (1961)
Marcus Graham (1963 – )
Another Perth-born actor you may not know is Marcus Graham. His TV career kicked off with E – Street, (he played ‘Wheels’), saw him win an award for his 2006 guest appearance in Blue Heelers, and has since included stints in 2008’s Underbelly (as Lewis Caine), and in the US series Charmed. He was also part of a strong cast in the 2001 thriller Mulholland Drive, as well as portraying Harvey Ryan in the Australian series Home and Away. He lived with Nicole Kidman before she met Tom Cruise.
NOTE: As much as we in Western Australia would like to claim Sam Worthington as one of our own, he was actually born in Surrey, England, his family migrating to Perth when he was 6 months old. He grew up in Warnbro, a suburb south of Fremantle, and attended the John Curtin College of the Arts where he briefly studied drama, but failed to graduate. That very building was once my high school back in the 1960s when it was first constructed as John Curtin Senior High School. Personally, I really enjoyed his portrayal of Jake Sully in Avatar (2009). I wonder if he considers himself Australian or English.
There have been (as far as I am aware) seven nationally or internationally known actresses who were born in Western Australia, all of them in country towns, none in Perth. Here they are, in alphabetical order:
Kate Atkinson. Born in Kalgoorlie, WA in 1972, but raised in Perth. Kate is best known for her TV roles in Sea Change, Offspring and Wentworth.
Enid Bennett. Born in York, WA in 1893. Almost completely forgotten today, Enid was a major player in the silent era in America. Not only did she marry Fred Niblo, the director of the second cinematic version of Ben-Hur, but she also starred in 23 films herself, in one of which, Robin Hood (1922), she famously played Maid Marian opposite Douglas Fairbanks (below), the number one box-office star in the world at the time. She died in California in 1969 at the age of 75, her humble beginnings in the tiny country town of York a dim and distant memory.
Emma Booth. Born in Denmark, WA in 1982. Formerly Western Australia’s Model of the Year, Emma gained international prominence opposite Brenda Blethyn in 2007’s Introducing the Dwights, when it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival. She also appeared in the 2009 horror film Blood Creek.
Courtney Eaton. Born in Bunbury, WA in 1996. Courtney has just started her acting journey, but is already known for Mad Max: Fury Road and Gods of Egypt, both released in 2015.
Elsie Mackay. Born in Roebourne, WA in 1894. Elsie had quite a good career on Broadway, but only one small role in film. That was in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), and was uncredited. She is best remembered (by buffs and scarcely anyone else) as the wife of prominent American actor Lionel Atwill, a union that ended abruptly after eight years in 1928. Her husband hired a private detective who caught Elsie en flagrante in a hotel bed with silent star Max Montesole. Oops!
Elsie Mackay & Lionel Atwill
Claire van der Boom. Born in Broome, WA in 1983. Claire won a Logie in 2011 for Sisters of War, and achieved international recognition for her portrayal of Stella in the Steven Spielberg – produced mini-series The Pacific. She has starred in several more major productions, a most successful and respected actress.
Claire van der Boom
Tasma Walton. Born in Geraldton, WA in 1973. In 1995 she began playing Rachel Watson in TV’s Home and Away, then played Dash McKinley in 130 episodes of Blue Heelers. She has made numerous TV movies as well. In 2009, Tasma married Rove McManus in Broome, Western Australia, in a private ceremony.
Rove McManus & Tasma Walton