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Uncle Jack Charles: Revered Aboriginal actor and elder dies aged 79

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By Tiffanie Turnbull

BBC News, Sydney

Uncle Jack CharlesImage source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Uncle Jack Charles started acting at the age of 19

Celebrated Aboriginal Australian actor Uncle Jack Charles has died aged 79.

Charles starred in prominent Australian films in a career spanning decades and is lauded by many as the grandfather of Indigenous theatre.

Having been taken from his parents as a baby and abused in state care, his work also canvassed how trauma had led him to years of drug addiction and crime.

Charles died peacefully on Tuesday in a Melbourne hospital after suffering a stroke, his publicist said.

Warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: this article contains images of someone who has died. His family has given permission to use his name and image.

The Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Yorta Yorta elder led a “remarkable life”, they said in a statement.

“We are so proud of everything he has achieved… Elder, actor, musician, potter, activist, mentor, a household name and voice loved by all.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Charles “leaves a joyous legacy”.

Charles co-founded Australia’s first Aboriginal-led theatre group in Melbourne in 1971. He has appeared in famed Australian films including The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Bedevil (1993) and Blackfellas (1993).

A member of the Stolen Generations, Charles was four months old when he was forcibly removed from his mother as part of now-infamous policies aimed at “assimilating” Aboriginal children into white families.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a national apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008.

Charles spent his early years in state care, where he was physically and sexually abused.

In 2019, he told the BBC how the trauma of his childhood saw him spend the next five decades in and out of prison.

But discovering acting as a young man was his lifeline: “In a way it saved me,” he told a Victorian inquiry earlier this year.

Young Indigenous performers who worked with him also paid tribute on Tuesday. Adam Briggs remembered Charles as a “warm, funny and friendly soul”.

Nakkiah Lui said he was “true royalty”, adding: “It was an honour to know you, work with you, call you my uncle and friend.”

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Charles won recognition for his advocacy work

In his later years, Charles also took on an advocacy role for Aboriginal prisoners.

“I’ve been an actor since I was 19, but I lost a lot of work because of white powders and jail time,” he said in 2019.

“I dearly would’ve loved an Aboriginal elder like me to come and tweak my conscience.

“I’ve had the breaks in my life – now I want to make sure other young Indigenous kids get theirs.”

State Premier Daniel Andrews described Charles as a “great Victorian” who “took his own personal pain and the great trauma that he had suffered in his life to be a beacon for others, and to campaign for justice”.

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