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WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following may contain images, story and voices of deceased, by and about persons. Discretion advised.

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Robert Tudawali

22 July 2021 // Robert Tudawali

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Robert Tudawali (1929 – 26 July 1967), also known as Bobby Wilson and Bob Wilson, was an Australian actor and activist. He is known for his leading role in the 1955 Australian film Jedda, which made him the first Indigenous Australian film star, and also his position as Vice-President of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights.

He was born about 1929 on  Melville Island in the Northern Territory son of Tiwi parents. He later said of his childhood: 'I hunted, fought, sang like all my people. No clothes. No worries. The country I ran in was my own—every rock, tree meant something to me'. In the late 1930s he went to Darwin by canoe with his parents and took the name Bobby Wilson (using the surname of his father's employer). Although he had only a basic education in Kahlin Compound and Half Caste Home in Darwin, and learned to speak in the beautifully modulated tones for which he was often mocked as 'Gentleman Bobbie'.

He was the leading Australian rules footballer as a youth, and he alternated several times between Aboriginal and white society. He used the name Bobby Wilson in Darwin when he travelled there by canoe in the late 1930s, using the surname of his father's employer. In 1941, he became an orderly with the Royal Australian Air Force, then worked briefly in an army store and mechanical workshop, and also as a waiter before becoming an actor.

In 1952 Charles Chauvel and his wife Elsa chose Tudawali for the leading male role in the 1955 Australian film Jedda, a full-length colour motion picture filmed in the Territory and in Sydney. In doing so, Tudawali became the first male Indigenous Australian film star. In 1958 he played the role of Emu Foot in Dust in the Sun, a mystery film adapted from the novel Justin Bayard by Jon Cleary and produced by the team of Lee Robinson and Chips Rafferty.

Under the name Bobby Wilson, he took part in various episodes of the 1960 TV series Whiplash, and featured in the ABC television play, Burst of Summer, in 1961. It has been argued Tudawali's role in the latter was closest to his real personality.

Tudawali served as Vice-President of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights in 1966 and, working with activist Dexter Danielstrade unionist and activist Brian Manning and author Frank Hardy, fought to highlight the poor wages and conditions of Aboriginal stockmen in the Northern Territory, which culminated in the Wave Hill walk-off in 1966. Tudawali had organised to give a series of talks to unionists throughout Australia in support of the stockmen when the Northern Territory administration banned any travel by Tudawali due to the tuberculosis he was suffering at the time.

Tudawali was married to Peggy Wogait in 1948 and they lived at the Bagot Aboriginal Reserve (where all of the residents of Kahlin had been moved in 1938; later he married a woman named Nancy.

He died of tuberculosis and severe burns at Darwin Hospital on 26 July 1967, following an incident at Bagot; an argument had broken out when he refused to offer his 11-year-old daughter Christine for marriage.

His funeral took place at  Nightcliff, Northern Territory and he is buried in Darwin Cemetery. 

In 1987, Steve Jodrell directed Tudawali, a made for television docu-drama about the man, with Ernie Dingo in the title role.

In about 1993, the Media Resource Centre announced a new award for Indigenous film-making, called the Tudawali Award. The Tudawali Indigenous Film and Television Awards (Tudawali Awards) continue to recognise outstanding achievements of Indigenous people in the Australian film industry.

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