Uncle Jack Charles, Indigenous actor, musician, activist and senior Elder, has died aged 79

The Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Yorta Yorta Elder, whose decades-long career spanned the stage, screen and music, passed surrounded by loved ones at North Melbourne Hospital this morning

Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander readers are advised that this story contains the name and image of a person who has died.

Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Yorta Yorta actor, musician, activist and senior Elder, Uncle Jack Charles, has died at the age of 79.

In a statement shared by ABC from Charles’ publicist, it was confirmed that Charles died surrounded by family and loved ones at Royal Melbourne Hospital this morning (September 13), following his admission to the hospital after suffering a stroke. His family have given permission for his name and image to be shared.

According to the statement, prior to his passing, Charles’ family were able to properly send him off on Country, during a smoking ceremony at Royal Melbourne Hospital.

“We are so proud of everything he has achieved in his remarkable life – Elder, actor, musician, potter, activist, mentor, a household name and voice loved by all – as is demonstrated by his numerous awards including this year’s NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year,” the statement continues.

“He will live on in our hearts and memories and through his numerous screen and stage roles. May he be greeted by his Ancestors on his return home.”

Born in Melbourne in 1943, Charles was a member of the Stolen Generations, and was taken from his mother as an infant and raised in a Salvation Army Boys’ Home in Melbourne.

Throughout his decades-long career, which spanned the stage, screen and music, he has regularly spoken about the significant negative impact Australian government policies such as forced assimilation had on him and others from his community.

Charles’ acting career began in the early 1970s, and he has appeared in a vast array of theatre productions since. Alongside late Aboriginal playwright and actor Bob Maza, he co-founded Australia’s first Indigenous theatre group, Nindethana. In 1972, they staged the play Jack Charles Is Up and Fighting, which featured music composed by Charles.

Charles’ other onstage productions have included his Helpmann Award-nominated one-man show, Jack Charles v The Crown, which debuted in Melbourne in 2010 and went on to tour both Australia and internationally.

Charles’ first onscreen film role came in 1978, in Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. In 1993, he co-starred alongside John Moore, David Ngoombujarra, John Hargreaves and Ernie Dingo in the James Ricketson-directed Blackfellas, an adaptation of Archie Weller’s 1981 novel The Day of the Dog.

Charles’ other film roles included appearances in 2004’s Tom White, 2013’s Mystery Road and 2015’s Pan. He also appeared in the drama series Cleverman, and was in two episodes of Stan’s Wolf Creek television adaptation.

Throughout his life, Charles was a staunch activist, working in his later life with Uncle Archie Roach to support Indigenous prisoners. In 2020, he and the late Roach came together to support the Raise the Age campaign, which is aimed at addressing the disproportionate impact of Australia’s legal and incarceration systems on young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Last year, Charles delivered a spoken word monologue on Yolngu rapper Baker Boy‘s ‘Gela’ track ‘Survive’. “My survivability now rests on the fact that I have to share that journey of surviving,” Charles says on the track. “Share it with those that are still struggling, trying to survive, against the enormous odds of the vicious cycle.”

Among those who have paid tribute to Charles are Yorta Yorta rapper Briggs, who said he had met him while working on Cleverman. “You’d never have met a more warm, funny & friendly soul,” Briggs wrote. “Uncle Jack & Uncle Arch gonna be in good company wherever they’re at.”