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EXCLUSIVE: At 80, Aussie screen legend Jack Thompson opens up about his death defying film and the woman who captured his heart 50 years ago

Treasuring every moment, Jack shares his story with Samantha Trenoweth.

By Samantha Trenoweth
His eyes betray his youthful heart: they're bright, alert, sapphire blue. Yet his hands have seen ages: weathered and sometimes bruised, a side-effect of dialysis treatment.
His voice is the same as ever: strong, resonant, with a hint of the larrikin, but there are also those measured vowels that suggest the store his parents put in education, and a penchant for reading poetry and debating in that long-ago childhood in a very different Australia.
Screen legend, Jack Thompson, is 80 and life has never felt more precious.
"Here I am," he begins, sitting by a wide-open window, surveying dewy garden, wooded hills, silver-white sand dunes beneath a blanket of scrub; stopping to hear the cackle of a kookaburra, the roar of the waves.
"Here I am in this fortunate paradise by the sea. It's a magic day."
A year ago, the hills were ablaze behind this patch of paradise on the NSW mid-north coast. Jack and his partner of 50 years, Leona King, returned from Europe to find their garden strewn with charred leaves.
"Ten days later," Jack says, "we were told to put everything we absolutely needed into a bag, and if the alarm came, we were to head east. If the fire had hit, we would have been standing in the Pacific Ocean with a little bag carrying, what I discovered in the end, was very little. What do you really need? All those things you've collected – the paintings, books, music –have to go. You realise that your life is much more important than the material objects in your life – although, I was already well aware of that."
That lesson was brought home to Jack powerfully in February 2018 when he was diagnosed with renal failure.
"According to the doctors, I was only 72 hours away from death," he explains.
"When I was in St Vincent's Hospital, one of the doctors used to put his head into my room every morning and say, 'Morning, Jack. You should be dead, you know.' And I'd say, 'Thanks to you guys, I'm not.'"
Now Jack hooks himself up to a dialysis machine for roughly five hours on three days of every week, which keeps him not only alive but thriving.
"It's like I have been given a second shot at life."
Jack of the second chances. He has fallen on his feet more than once before – the first time when he was just a golden-haired four-year-old.
Jack was a '40s child. His father, Harold, was a merchant seaman who spent Jack's early years away at war. His mother, Marjorie, was young, affectionate, beautiful and worked at the popular Mark Foy's department store in Sydney.
Jack (who was born John Hadley Pain) and his younger brother, David, spent weekends with their mother in seaside Manly, but on weekdays they often stayed in what was called a boarding crèche. Jack's earliest memories are of eating ice-cream in hospital after he'd had his tonsils removed, and of his mother, who anchored his world in place.
"I remember being with my mother and an aunt on the Corso at Manly," he says.
"And I remember walking with my younger brother and an adult who I think was my mother, looking out over the harbour. David would have been two so I must have been three."
Jack was an Aussie screen heartthrob in the 1970s and 80s. (Getty)
Jack's mother died suddenly the following year, throwing the family into grief and the boys' future into question. All he remembers is that "she went to hospital one day and didn't come back." Young Jack and David rolled with the punches.
"There's a thing about children," he says. "Early on, you just accept life. It's later in life that you might reflect on it and think, that was tough. But at the time, you do what's required."
Harold returned from the war unable or unwilling to care for two small boys. Their aunt Beverley, who had been keeping an eye on them, had married a US serviceman.
"She had a babe in arms," Jack explains, "and was about to follow her husband to America. A whole ship was chartered and it was full of American war brides – most of them with babies. Before she left, she said to her father, 'What are we going to do with Harry's two little boys? We'll have to put them in an orphanage.'"
Then they heard about The Children's Seaside Hotel, or Lake House. A utopian experiment in residential education, it was set up by Irene Connell and Geyda Campbell – both teachers – the latter had worked in England at A.S Neill's famous 'free' school, Summerhill.
Jack's first memory of his father is of the day he and Aunt Beverley took the boys to Lake House. Immediately Jack had a sense that this would be a great adventure.
"Those women were motivated by the love of children," he says.
"No child was turned away. There were two kids with Downes Syndrome. A couple had learning difficulties. There were children who had been sent from Indonesia to relatives in Australia who had found they couldn't look after them. There were children like David and myself who had come from broken homes. During the war, almost every home was broken. And there were day children whose parents were interested in this new form of education."
With the Narrabeen Lagoon on one side and the ocean just across the road, there was plenty of fresh air and Famous Five-style outdoor exploring. Imagination and independence were encouraged too.
There was art and music, and Jack entertained his schoolmates with impromptu performances based on showreels he'd seen at the Saturday picture show.
"The method of learning was very Montessori," he explains.
"'What are you interested in? I'll tell you what that's about.' The school published its own magazine. They had a little printing press. They ground their own wheat, made their own bread. They had cows. The children helped with it all. So what a lucky boy Jack was to be placed in this loving environment. I mean, it wasn't all beer and skittles. There were kids there for whom life would always be difficult, but boy, did David and I land on our feet."
Jack has continued to work in the entertainment industry. (Getty)
The most fortunate event of all was Jack's meeting with fellow student Peter Thompson, now a film critic, then the tousle-haired son of ABC journalist, poet and progressive thinker, John Thompson, and his wife Pat, also a writer.
Jack and Peter quickly became inseparable, and in the end, Jack spent so much time with the Thompsons that they adopted him. Though Pat often said that it was Jack who adopted them.
At the time, David was to be adopted by another family but when Harry (who had no intention of providing a home for the boys himself) objected, David's prospective family reneged.
It was a wrench to be separated from his brother but, Jack says, "there were half a dozen children at the school who did not have parents to go to on holidays. We were called the sons and daughters of the house, and you felt that it was sort of a privilege to be in that position rather than a tragedy."
Jack finished primary school at Lake House, and when the family moved to Paddington, he was enrolled at Sydney Boys High. But his greatest insights were gleaned from the Thompsons.
"John and Pat Thompson shaped the sort of man I am and all I aspire to and hold dear," Jack tells The Weekly, still with a genuine reverence.
"John Thompson was an extraordinary writer, an extraordinary mind. The Thompsons had regular dinner parties and they would talk about who they should invite, who would spark the most interesting conversation. When it was really buzzing downstairs – when the wine was flowing, the people were laughing and chatting – Peter and I would get out of bed and go to the top of the stairs where you were still in the dark but you could hear the conversation. So we were very involved with this intellectual life – the life of writers and music, the love of human company. The Thompsons made this Jack Thompson. They were responsible for so much of it."
The Thompsons were among the founders of Australia's first resident action group, the Paddington Society. They not only secured heritage listing for the suburb's grand Victorian terraces but were responsible for its now shady streets.
"There were no trees in Paddington when we moved there," Jack recalls, "but there was an ordinance that said, if a resident wanted a tree, the council was obliged to plant one. So, as boys, Peter and I went around after school with clipboards saying, 'Do you want a tree?' 'Why?' 'Council's supposed to give you one. They'll give you one if you just sign here.'"
Ever since then, says his friend Phillip Adams, Jack's been a man who "can't stay away from a good cause."
Jack has lent his voice to Labor politics (he was part of the chorus in Whitlam's famous 1972 It's Time campaign), he's been on the front lines of the battle to save native forests with Bob Brown in Tasmania and on his home territory in northern NSW, he has been a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and an advocate for First Nations people, championing bilingual education and establishing his own foundation to support building programs in remote communities.
While Jack was still in primary school, John Thompson returned from a National Geographic expedition to East Arnhem Land with film and sound recordings, and a new friend, Bill Harney, who had spent his life in the Territory.
"All this came into the house," Jack recalls, still with a hint of that awe, "and I was blown away. I fell in love with it. I spent the next year looking out the window and dreaming of this world."
Jack (pictured here in 2020) remains an advocate for positive social change. (Getty)
Just shy of his fifteenth birthday, he left home to become a jackaroo. Old Bill Harney set up a job for him on Elkedra Station in the Northern Territory.
"I still remember," Jack says, "when I left to go to Elkedra – it's something I've remembered for the rest of my life – Dad was standing at the gate and he said, 'You don't want to be an actor, do you Johnny?' I'd enjoyed acting as a hobby but I'd never seen it as a profession. I thought, what are you talking about?"
Jack spent the best part of a year on Elkedra. Out on the stock camp, he learnt the ropes from the local Alyarre men. They rose with the dawn to a breakfast of tea and damper, mustered cattle by day, slept on a swag under the stars at night.
"It was open land," he says, "this great sweep of country. No fences. It was quite extraordinary."
Years working on stations followed. Then, at 17, he was offered a position as a lab assistant at an agricultural research station.
"I wanted to do something with this brain of mine," he jests. From there he joined the army, purely to be sponsored through a Bachelor of Science. He moved to Brisbane, married a local girl, Beverley Hackett, briefly and fathered his first son, Patrick. He also plunged back into his old hobby, joining the university drama society and Twelfth Night Theatre, where he met longtime friend Michael Caton.
"In the end," he says, "the hobby began to take more time than my studies and I switched from Science to Arts."
One evening, back in Sydney, Jack says, "I was driving to the Journo's Club with my mother and father, and I was raving on about this new production. Dad said: 'Have you thought about doing this seriously? You know, full-time?' And then he added: 'Just remember, lilies that fester stink worse than weeds.'" I thought that might have been a nod. So not long after, I dropped everything, sought an agent and gave myself 12 months. If, at the end of 12 months, it wasn't happening, I'd go back to my academic pursuits and put the hobby on the shelf."
It was 1968. Jack went to 28 auditions that year. The first 27 of them were unsuccessful, but the last one, for a TV drama called Motel, landed him his first professional acting job.
John Thompson died in the winter of that year. Peter was away, on a Churchill Fellowship. Jack sat with his father in the hospital, reading poetry to him in his final days. John didn't live to see his son's phenomenal career, but Jack insists he owes so much of it to him: "What an intelligent and loving man he was."
Then, in 1970, the first rumblings of an Australian film renaissance began.
"That year," Jack says, "I was in Broken Hill making Wake in Fright. My life had changed forever."
Jack embodied archetypal Aussie manhood through the ages. (Getty)
Jack arrived just as a new national identity was born – proud of our straight-talking larrikin side. Jack embodied archetypal Aussie manhood through the ages.
The classic young Jack was the shearer wiggling his bare bottom in Sunday Too Far Away. He reimagined Banjo Patterson's Clancy in The Man from Snowy River and the tenacity of a 19th century detective in Mad Dog Morgan. He was naughty, funny, brash and proud in Peterson.
In the early '80s, he slipped into angel-of-justice roles. That sonorous, timeless voice evoked a sense of deep compassion for human frailties. His part as Major James Francis Thomas in Breaker Morant won him an AFI Award and Best Supporting Actor at Cannes and led to roles in Hollywood, including attorney Sonny Seiler in Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
In the '70s there was also sex symbol Jack, the world's first nude male centrefold in the pages of Cleo.
And politically right-on Jack who convinced Ita Buttrose to model the shoot on Renaissance master Titian's Venus d'Urbino, underlining that this was a challenge to gender stereotypes as well as a bit of cunning marketing.
Then there was breaking-all-the-rules Jack, shacked up with two sisters on his Dorrigo farm, a relationship which lasted for 15 years and for which all three became notorious.
When Leona's younger sister, Bunkie, finally published her memoir in 2015, she drew attention to the fact that this affair of the heart began while she was still in her teens and that the counterculture's free love ethos was not entirely synonymous with ideals of equality for women.
Jack insisted at the time that theirs was a relationship of mutual trust and love.
"I think it's difficult to explain that time," he begins tentatively.
"I think … there was a sense of release if you like. We were born during a war or immediately after – a war that occupied the world. The restrictions associated with that – socially and economically – and the struggle. As a boy I grew up in a world that saw itself as becoming more and more modern – this new, modern world with all these wonders.
"There was a sense that we were stepping into this growing, wonderful world – an extraordinary optimism. We felt we could go anywhere, be anything. Things that needed to change would be changed…The youth revolution part of it, and that element of rebellion, worried a lot of people.
"Just the other night, my wife and I were looking at a documentary on the Beatles and remembering what it was like – the crowds of teenagers, screaming and just going right off their nuts. Musicians were the archetype of that generation, and I loved it. I lived in it. It was me. I remember a Beatles album coming out and you would immediately get hold of it and put it on the hi-fi and lie on the floor between two speakers.
"It was a celebration of our generation. That's what it was like. But this is a different world. Both my sons [Patrick who is 52 and Bill, 31] have entered a world in which that has fallen by the wayside. The internet provides constant reminders of how close we are to the edge in terms of the environment."
That said, Jack holds out hope for this precarious new world.
"I'm the glass half-full bloke," he chuckles. "I'm an optimist."
Jack at the Venice Film Festival in 2016. (Getty)
In part, that's always been his nature: Jack of the bright futures and second chances. In part, it's a result of the equanimity that 46 years practising tai chi has brought. When he met Tennyson Yiu in 1975, the master asked, "How long do you have to learn?" And Jack answered, "The rest of my life."
Another near lifelong spiritual connection has been with the Indigenous people of Australia. He was a great friend of the late teacher and Yothu Yindi founder Dr M Yunupingu, he has been a regular at the annual Garma Festival in Arnhem Land and has been welcomed there, by the Gumatji people of the Yolngu nation, who have given him the name "Gulkula".
All this explains why Jack's most recent film, the magnificent High Country, means the world to him. A breathless, brutal, viscerally beautiful tale of Aboriginal resistance in the Northern Territory, it's lived for a long while in the hearts and minds of both Jack and director Stephen Johnson.
When Jack's kidneys failed just as production was set to begin, neither Stephen nor Jack would hear of him quitting. The Territory's famous Purple Bus (a mobile dialysis unit that visits remote communities) allowed the show to go on, parking for the duration on the Arnhem Land set. And it was worth it for Jack's nuanced, darkly comic take on the shrewd police officer Moran.
Jack's friend Dr Yunupingu suffered from kidney disease but opted eventually to remove himself from dialysis and leave this world. Jack's prognosis, however, is far more positive. He has a vigorous grip on life and a string of future screen roles lined up.
And still, as if to prove the bloody-minded resilience and resolve of love, he has Leona, who has now become his wife.
"Fifty years, mate," he says with a hint of that young larrikin pride.
Then more solemnly: "It's extraordinary and it's a delight. At this time of our lives together, it is only better than it has ever been. It's as if…I don't know. You look at each other with a love that could only have come from all this time together."
He explains that every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he connects himself to the dialysis machine and, at the end of the procedure, Leona comes and helps him off.
"I am eternally grateful," he says, "for her friendship, her company and her love. I am eternally grateful for that." Then he stops for a moment and adds, "Yes, I would call this a great love."
High Ground, also starring Simon Baker and newcomer Jacob Junior Nayinggul, is in cinemas from January 28.
Read more in the February issue of Australian Women's Weekly, on sale now.

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