A man of the people, Hunter farewelled with heart

Bill Hunter died on the day the world was supposed to end, his manager, Mark Morrissey, said yesterday. ''I suspect,'' he added, ''that the rapture was cancelled due to the fear that Hunter would turn up.''

Mr Morrissey was addressing a memorial service at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, where several hundred people gathered to celebrate and farewell the actor who died in a Kew hospice at 8.05pm on Saturday from liver cancer. He was 71.

At 2pm, just as the heavens opened, the showbiz-heavy crowd filed into the theatre. As the lights dimmed, the red velvet curtain rose to reveal the singer Paul Kelly on stage with his guitar, next to Hunter's coffin and beneath the now-familiar portrait of the actor painted by Jason Benjamin.

Appropriately for Hunter, who was repeatedly described during the service as a man of the people, that painting won the Packing Room prize at the 2005 Archibald, but not the main event.

Kelly sang his song Nukkanya. With its plaintive refrain, ''I really don't want to go,'' it was easy to imagine the words had come straight from Hunter.

First to speak was the actor Rod Mullinar, in whose house Hunter had spent his last three months, letting on only towards the very end that he was dying. He described Hunter as ''a sweet, generous and humble man who cared not a jot about fame, privileges and bullshit''.

The actor ''loved the earthiness and honesty of the Australian vernacular, its humour, its larrikin spirit'', said Mullinar. As illustration, he cited a recent discussion of a woman who had caught the eye of the frequently entangled Hunter. She had, he told his friend, ''nipples like skipping rope handles''.

His former wife, Rhoda Roberts, an indigenous painter from Sydney with whom Hunter spent a decade of his life, revealed their first encounter - like so many others in the actor's life - began in a pub. ''It was a one-nighter, or so I thought,'' she said.

During their marriage, she revealed, she had taken to hiding his boots. He was a can-do man, ''but one thing Bill couldn't do was walk barefoot. I figured if we had an argument and he was going to get up and go out during the night he couldn't do it without his shoes.''

John Hunter testified to his brother's athletic prowess, saying he swam in every freestyle event at the 1957 Victorian championships from 50 metres to 1500, and won them all. His niece Kate Hunter Sheffield talked of his generosity. ''If someone complimented something he was wearing he'd literally take it off and give it to them.''

Gary Foley, with whom Hunter starred in the 1977 film Backroads, said Hunter was unchanged by fame. ''Even as he became one of the best-known faces in Australia, he was always the same Billy, basically a decent, egalitarian, knockabout larrikin. He was a man of the people. In his inelegance there was an abundance of elegance,'' Foley said.

He added: ''Billy may have been born with a white skin but he had the heart of a blackfella, and that's about the greatest compliment I've ever paid to any person.''

The comedian Mick Molloy introduced a montage of clips from Hunter's 52-year career in film and television, then invited everyone to reconvene at the All Nations pub in Richmond to swap war stories.

As the crowd gathered on the footpath outside the theatre and clapped heartily as the hearse drove away, it was the sort of farewell Hunter would have relished. Certainly, he never imagined there would be an encore.

Hunter had no time for the ''absurd'' concept of reincarnation, one speaker had said. In the great man's own words: ''What's the point of coming back, mate, if you can't remember the last time?''

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