He's Ba-ack!

By Diana Simmonds Feature Posted on December 31st 1969

The description "icon" is overworked in a society where "awesome" can be used to describe anything from a gelato to a tsunami. But if there is an awesome icon - other than Uluru - it is that other force of Australian nature: Bill Hunter.

With a career as the archetypal rock-solid, good old Aussie bloke that goes back to 1978's Newsfront, Hunter is as familiar as a favourite uncle - or granddad - to generations of Australian. His credits include Strictly Ballroom, Muriel's Wedding, The Last Days of Chez Nous, Kangaroo Jack rugged commercials for, among others, BHP and the ALP, and, possibly most delightfully, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

In Priscilla Hunter played Bob, the outback motor mechanic who falls for gorgeously tragic trany Bernadette (Terence Stamp). It was one of the less likely and more charming romances ever committed to film. And now, Hunter is doing something rare in showbiz: returning to a role after more than a decade in the stage musical version: Pricilla Queen of the Desert: the Musical.

"I think it's probably unique," Hunter says. "I can't ever recall a film that became a stage show."For Hunter, being offered the role of Bob while his mate of many years Michael Caton takes a well-earned holiday, was "a real curve. I had little time to think about it, said yeah, I'll do it. I can do it. Then I thought - jeez, you've taken on something here. It's not the words, it's the mechanics of the thing."

He's not talking about the innards of the temperamental old bus that he nurses through the outback to the Alice, by the way, but the tightly choreographed, well-tuned Ferrari that is the major musical.

"That's right, it's so complicated. I spend more time running around backstage than I do on it and I have to remember where I'm going and where I am!"

Hunter is quietly at ease with his role as the macho man who falls for a transsexual whose heyday was Carlotta's Les Girls, the Cross and wolf-whistling soldiers. It's touching, grounded and somehow very Australian.

"I knew Carlotta very well back then," he says. "I see her from time to time and she's still something. I think attitudes have changed a lot since those days. I mean, who'd a thought the Mardi Gras would start - and then become the biggest gay event in the world? It says a lot about tolerance and it's the same as the ridiculous attitudes towards Muslims now."

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Hunter is renowned for being outspoken and a bus full of drag queens being hounded out of outback towns - as happens in the admirably tough Priscilla scenario - is an opportunity not to be missed.

"When I was a kid it was the dagos and wogs and then the slopes who got a kicking and poofter bashing was a national sport. And look where we are now. We needed to become multicultural. It's made us a better place and better people. I think we can achieve what America has failed to achieve."

The achievement is tangible in Priscilla where laughter gives way to uncertain giggles then stunned silence when, for instance, the lads return from a warmly received night at the pub to find the bus daubed with "Fuck off faggots".

"It is interesting to hear the way the laughter stops," says Hunter. "Hate and fear are the great stimuli and it's always stoked by these right-wing mongrel bastards that calls itself a government. Not that I'd want you to think I'm opinionated." And the Hunter twinkle returns.

After his two weeks on the bus Hunter returns to waiting to hear whether he's ever to get started on the new Baz Lurhman epic (the one with Our Nicole and Our Hugh doing a spot of cattle droving).

"It's been on or off or on for two years now," Hunter says, shrugging and grinning with the kind of resignation that can only come from spending most of your life on a film set. "We'll see."

Bill HunterHome and Away's Ray Meagher (Alf Stewart) is the next guest star due to take on the role of Bob the mechanic - in June.

"I'm like Bill, I think," he says. "I'm not sure what I've let myself in for. But I know it's going to be fun."

So will this be a holiday from the long-running soapie?

Lord no!" he laughs. "Holidays are when I go to the UK and do pantomime. No, I'll be working on Home and Away during the day and doing Priscilla at night. But I think they're going to work around me, who knows I might have really easy calls."

So what's the attraction of the musical?

"Well, I wasn't going to do it, but they said - just come and see it. And I did and well ... " he laughs. "Sometimes you just have to do things when they're offered. You're a long time dead."

Pictured here: Bill Hunter, Michael Caton and Ray Meagher - the Bobs

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