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Hargreaves, John William (1945–1996)

from Sydney Morning Herald

Graeme Blundell remembers John Hargreaves, while his colleagues pay tribute to one of Australia's great actors.

Johnny Hargreaves was becoming more than an actor. Time, "that lovely and distorting razzle-dazzle", had begun to turn him into a shared recollection, a folk-memory even — a treasured piece of our film-going. He was coming to us in the '90s wearing a halo of special status.

Women loved him. Men had respect for him. The cello-timbre laugh, crooked country boy grin, self-deprecating irony, the heaving Adam's apple and easy blush, the insouciance, candour and charm.

And the laugh and the words, the ricochet of words, sometimes precise and vigorous in intensity, always arresting, hitting at you from strange angles and then the huge, warm, smoggy laugh that always made him seem like a darkly mischievous little boy.

"The laugh is what I'll miss," his agent, Ann Churchill-Brown, told me. "No-one laughs like that any more." Just after Johnny died at St Vincent's, his father told Ann that he remembered taking Hargreaves to the pictures as a small kid. "He laughed so loudly that everyone turned around and looked," he said. He spent a lot of his life breathlessly.

There was the way he thrust himself in and out of chairs, through doorways. At these moments he was aggressive but oddly embarrassed, sheepish as though he had outstayed his welcome. "You have to know when to go, Blundell," he'd say.

But while he was there he took risks that were obsessive, his fallibility only adding to his mystery; sometimes his work was remarkable for the way he opened himself to humiliation. Sometimes you could see the hard work, feel the pitch in his voice, his concentration a form of mystical withdrawal, desperately trying to share the experiences of the character he was playing. Other times you could just see him papering over an underwritten part with certain physical and vocal mannerisms.

He broke all the rules but he never looked like he was acting. He thought his way into a script and converted it to his own idiom, practically ingesting it, the camera catching it — if the operator was quick enough to keep up with his subliminal paraphrasing.

In the Crawford days Len Teale used to teach us that screen acting "is about learning how to talk without moving your lips". Johnny was one of the first local actors to reveal that we weren't just megaphones, that actors possess inner voices worth listening to.

He developed a singular kind of stuttered emphasis; his pauses were reticent, hanging about waiting for words to heave through them. His acting was about quick changes of moods, naturalism on the gallop. Other actors talked of "doing a Hargreaves" but he always did it better.

Except relationships sometimes. "It's the stories," he'd say. "You get so sick of having to tell the same stories over and over with the new ones."

But he always understood and gracefully accepted that acting is a life of quiet desperation. "You sometimes wonder why you become an actor in the first place," he said after coming home from Europe. "After 20 years as an actor, it's such an artificial life. I've learned how to pretend to do things. I've given a convincing portrait of a welder, a vet, a doctor. I can give an injection. I know a lot about an incredible variety of topics. In fact, I don't know anything and I can't do anything."

His humility: "I wonder who Hargs is talking to right now," Bryan Brown said the night of his death. "One thing. I bet he's laughing."

Colin Friels (actor): Friels said Hargreaves was always working, either on acting projects or helping social causes. "He was busy as an ant, extremely energetic. Not be sychophantic, but he shone a light on your life.

George Olgilvie (director): "John had a most extraordinary, almost unique, capacity for being spontaneous, no matter how studied. He would study hard, listen and learn in the rehearsal room, and then make it look like he wasn't acting at all, like it was the most natural thing in the world.

"I once organised a workshop for actors — on the first day, before the session began, he asked me what part did I want him to play. 'Just be yourself', I replied. 'No such person,' he said, 'I am an actor'. And he meant it."

Richard Franklin (film director): John was more than one of our great actors; he was one of our great icons. He was the quintessential Australian.

"When it came to casting the part of an intellectual ocker (Dick, in the movie Hotel Sorrento, which Franklin directed), it was incredibly difficult to think of anyone but John to play the part."

David Williamson (playwright and screenwriter): He was one of our great male actors ... John was a perfectionist. But he could be difficult because he was a perfectionist. John wouldn't settle for second best.

"He couldn't play any other way than truthfully." Williamson recalled when Hargreaves was acting in Tennesee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof he went to live in the small American town in which it was set for four weeks.

"He's a great loss. He had many, many more years to go and he'll leave a great big hole."

Original publication

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Citation details

'Hargreaves, John William (1945–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hargreaves-john-william-31765/text39994, accessed 29 June 2022.

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