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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Charles, Jack (1943–2022)

by Stephen Lunn

from Australian

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Jack Charles, by Robert Wallace, 2011

Jack Charles, by Robert Wallace, 2011

National Library of Australia, 47781957

Jack Charles’ acting biography lists his height at 155cm, but to so many touched by his work on stage and screen, or by his activism on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, he was a giant.

Charles died on Tuesday in the Royal Melbourne Hospital aged 79 after suffering a stroke. He was seen off with a final smoking ceremony, surrounded by loved ones.

“We are so proud of everything he achieved in his remarkable life – elder, actor, musician, potter, activist, mentor, a household name and a voice loved by all,” his family, which has given The Australian permission for his name and image to be used, said.

Charles ended life a respected Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Yorta Yorta elder but started by being removed from his family aged four months as one of the Stolen Generations.

He spent 12 years of his childhood at a Salvation Army Boys’ Home in Melbourne, and has talked about the sexual abuse and cruel punishment he suffered. He met his mother for the first time aged 19, having believed for years he was an orphan.

“I wasn’t even told I was Aboriginal,” he told Victoria’s Truth Telling Commission earlier this year, the first Indigenous elder to address the commission.

“I had to discover that myself. I knew nothing, was told nothing and had to assimilate … I was whitewashed by the system.”

Charles appeared in dozens of productions on stage and screen. His first film role was in Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith in 1978.

Arguably his most successful work was his 2010 stage play Jack Charles v The Crown, which he toured internationally.

He helped found the first Indigenous theatre group, Nindethana, at Melbourne’s Pram Factory, in 1971 alongside Bob Maza.

Bob’s daughter Rachael Maza, artistic director of the Ilbijerri theatre company, recalls growing up in the company of Uncle Jack.

“One of Nindethana’s first productions in the 70s was called Jack Charles: Up and Fighting,” she told The Australian. “He was a star way back then and he’s been a star ever since.

“He was charming and gracious always, a bit cheeky, but he never shirked away from saying what needed to be said. The charming activist, constantly on the warpath, a role model for so many.”

Alongside Charles’ acting were years of struggle as he dealt with heroin addiction, homelessness and being jailed numerous times for burglary and drug offences.

The experiences informed both his on-stage career and his advocacy on behalf of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in particular finding pathways for them to stay out of prison and away from the justice system.

Charles’ death drew an outpouring of emotion across the nation. Anthony Albanese said his death was a great loss for the country.

“He was a great character and what a tough life. He was someone taken from his mum, part of the Stolen Generations, enormous trouble with the law but he had a background not just of that but of abuse as a young boy,” the Prime Minister said.

“As someone who came through that to be a person of hope, he was someone who was a promoter of reconciliation and bringing the country together.”

Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney said Charles was “a groundbreaking storyteller and activist who brought people in with his warmth and grace, never shying away from his past and who he was.”

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Citation details

Stephen Lunn, 'Charles, Jack (1943–2022)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/charles-jack-32787/text40778, accessed 25 September 2022.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2012