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EXCLUSIVE: Substance abuse, a violent marriage and tragic loss: Prisoner's Maggie Kirkpatrick reflects on her turbulent life

Despite the obstacles thrown her way, the acclaimed actress is determined to stay standing strong.

By Anita Lyons
When Maggie Kirkpatrick speaks, you listen.
The 78-year-old's voice is unique, booming with authority and toughness, yet, somehow, there is a softness to it – like you're in the presence of your grandma.
Maggie speaks with rounded vowels, thanks to a successful career on stage and television, enunciating each word and her presence overall is simply captivating.
Maggie Kirkpatrick sat down with Now to Love. (Source: Now to Love)
Warm, joyous and a little bit rough around the edges, just as you'd hope someone of her stature would be and in this honesty, she reveals that she's not actually very comfortable doing a video interview.
"I don't like me on camera. I mean it's alright when I'm playing a character, I'm quite happy with that because it's not Maggie," she reveals. Despite this admission, she answers questions with grace, which is probably why her extraordinary career has spanned decades.
Of course, her most infamous part was as Joan "The Freak" Ferguson on Aussie drama Prisoner - but the role was almost never to be, when Maggie quit acting after taking her first professional job with John Alden's Shakespeare Company.
"I just didn't have the confidence to keep going," Maggie explains.
"You know, I was a lumpy 20-year-old and I don't know, just life just went in another direction," she says.
Soon after she quit, Maggie married Norman Kirkpatrick. The short-lived relationship would later become violent and the couple divorced, with Maggie remarking, "it was as much my fault".
John Hargreaves and Maggie in America Hurrah! 1968 (Source: New Theatre, Sydney)
After taking another hiatus from acting to give birth to her daughter, Caitlin, Maggie resumed theatre work, which ultimately led to television and cinema.
Kirkpatrick considers her herself a "jobbing actor", one who goes from job to job. But her time on Prisoner was of course, the most life-changing role and catapulted her into a world of stardom she didn't see coming.
"Oh, it was tough, tough going, tough working - long hours. We worked hard and played hard. Too hard," she reflects.
Not only was it emotionally demanding, it was physically gruelling as well, as the actress did all of the stunts herself.
"My body's telling me now all these years later what it was like," Maggie says.
"But it was exhilarating. The wonderful stunt coordinator for all of those fights and hanging off cliffs and hanging off stairwells, being hung - oh, gosh! And the fight scenes were extraordinary. They were totally choreographed and vicious – it was really clever."
Maggie played Joan "The Freak" Ferguson on Prisoner. (Source: Reg Grundy Organisation)
The experience for Maggie not only left her with an extraordinary profile, but life-long friends. When asked if she still keeps in touch with them, she doesn't skip a beat as she excitedly responds, "Oh hell yes! Yes!"
She adds, "People like Betty Bobbitt and Anne Phelan and Elizabeth Ballantyne - I just adore them, they've become friends for life."
When we asked what they all do together she simply states: "Well a lot of that a lot this [holding her hand up to ear] - a lot of fun chats because they're all in Victoria - but they're there and they're dear wonderful friends from that time.
Maggie says while the job itself could be intense, this was not the case off-screen between the cast.
"Four-and-a-half years of hard slog, [but] a lot of laughs - there were a lot of laughs amongst all those women in spite of the heaviness of the job. We had to be silly sometimes."
The "heaviness" she refers to is the treacherous storylines which took place over upwards of 400 episodes with her particular character the meanest of them all.
Each day, the cast and crew would wind down, with the only way they knew how. Alcohol.
"That was then," she says with a grimace. "But, this is now."
WATCH NEXT: Maggie reveals the advice she'd give to her younger self. Story continues...
In her break-out autobiography, The Gloves Are Off, Maggie outlines the worst year of her life – which right in the thick of everything.
"My life spiralled out of control," she writes. "Of course, I should have been the one to change all that, but somehow, I seemed to be on a treadmill of work, play, substance abuse and an agonising private life."
The following year, it was decided that production would cease after 692 episodes – however, Maggie had wanted to leave prior to this as she'd had enough.
Two years later, and her "private life, once again, was a mess," and finally, she decided to quit alcohol, Much to her delight, giving up the booze gave her a "profound weight loss".
It was here, after being a television actress for so long, that she headed back on stage, for the musical hit Anything Goes.
This, of course, wasn't to be her last musical theatre role, as she went on to play many others, including Madame Morrible in WICKED for seven years and 1600 performances.
Maggie as Madame Morrible in WICKED. (Source: Jeff Busby)
During this time, her co-star and acclaimed musical theatre star Rob Guest, who played the Wizard, died suddenly of a stroke.
"That was heartbreaking," she says. "We'd only been going [on the show] for three months and just settling into that family that a production becomes.
"You know, we were all over our opening night nerves and was settling into that lovely feel of trust and working with each other and developing the show at a really good pace, and Rob was so instrumental in looking after those young actors - you know, just beautiful.
"I thought, 'I've got a friend for life here because I'd never worked with him', and I thought 'Oh, we're going to have a great time here.'"
The news of his death was one that she'd "never forget".
"My daughter and my granddaughter were visiting in Melbourne and they were coming to a Wednesday matinee and as we were walking up to the stage door, the stage manager came towards me and she said 'Rob's understudy is going on today'. I said 'Oh that's news. He seemed alright last week, it was our first show of the week on the Wednesday and he seemed alright on Sunday. She said 'No he won't went be on. Rodney will be on and also Kelly the musical director [Rob's wife] won't be here either.'
'I thought, this is a big family problem that they've both had to deal with and it wasn't until after the show was over that John Frost [producer] came on stage after the curtain call and told us. Well, I mean it was just unbelievable that beautiful man, gone like that. Makes you think doesn't it."
Rob Guest in WICKED. (Source: Jeff Busby)
And it wasn't just Rob who changed Maggie's life for good, she insists.
"Do you know I think that the people that I've worked with most in Australia are the ones who are the most memorable," she reveals.
"Yes, there were some big names here and there, but for me it's all the people I've worked with in Australia who made me look good too and for their unswerving talent.
"They have been interesting people and they have been stimulating, wonderful people. People like Pamela Rabe and Belinda Giblin and Melissa Jaffa and Robyn Nevin and you know, they are great actresses - and the blokes haven't been too bad either," she chuckles.
Maggie continued to work until 2015, when she was charged with child sexual assault against a 13-year-old girl in the 1980s. She denied the allegations and fought to clear her name.
In a statement at the time, she said: "Yes, allegations have been levelled at me. Are they true? Absolutely not."
She was found guilty in August the same year, before appealing the case and winning with Judge Geoffrey Chettle finding that there was reasonable doubt surrounding the circumstances, and dismissing the conviction and charges.
So, after years of substance abuse, a violent marriage and a sexual assault charge, how on earth is Maggie Kirkpatrick still standing?
"I wish I knew. I mean, this is what you're seeing, you know, what I see at home on my own is another thing. But somehow we get by. I don't think I can add to that," she says, powerfully.
Maggie's new book The Gloves Are Off is a no-hold's barred look at her remarkable life. (Source: Supplied)
Following her turbulent period, Maggie credits her mother as giving her inner strength.
"You know someone asked me where do I get that from," she says. "I think it has to be Chrissy [her mother]. She put up with a lot in her life and she's survived it. "She kind of lived life on her own terms too. For her generation I wouldn't have called her a feminist. But she was a good role model in many ways."
Maggie's novel is filled with everything she has faced throughout her colourful life.
"I deal with my family life. I deal with the shows that I've been in. The people I've worked with, the places I've been, friends I have, friends I've lost - it's a bit of everything of 78 years," she says.
Now, Maggie lives in QLD, next door to her daughter Caitlin, with whom she is very close to.
Her grandchildren, Megan and Daniel, live an hour away, and now she is playing one of the best roles yet - great-grandma to 18-month-old Amelia – who is just "too beautiful" for words.
So with a life lived to fullest, with twists and turns and rollercoaster ups and downs we asked Maggie to give her younger self some advice.
"I'd like to say, just let it happen," she says.
"But when I let it happen it wasn't so crash-hot a lot of the time. Oh, I don't know. I'd say stay at school for a start.
"I would have hoped, I would hope not to make the mistakes that I made and I would have hoped that my younger self would have better radar for men. Bad choices. Not good."
The Gloves Are Off by Maggie Kirkpatrick, New Holland Publishers RRP $32.99 available from all good book retailers or online New Holland publishers.