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Anne Mary (Annie) Phelan (1944–2019)

by Robert Moran

from Sydney Morning Herald

Actress and activist Anne Phelan, best known for her breakthrough role as Myra Desmond in '80s soap Prisoner, has died aged 75.

The veteran star's spell on Australian screens stretched over five decades, with regular roles on TV favourites including Bellbird, Blue Heelers, Neighbours and, more recently, as Gross family matriarch Nanna Dot in Seven's Winners & Losers.

In 2000, she won an AFI Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Television Drama for her turn in the ABC mini-series Something in the Air, alongside Eric Bana.

She also appeared in films such as 1999's The Craic and 2009's Charlie & Boots, playing a female truckie in both, and most recently in this year's box office-topping Ride Like a Girl. On stage, she acted in over 50 plays.

"She just loved working," said Marea Jablonksi, director of talent agency BGM who represented Phelan for almost 50 years. "It was only recently that her health took a very sudden turn for the worst.

"She had an incredible ability to create very true characters — you just believed she was that person. There was no trickery to her work, it was just true and beautiful, and she created a whole lot of archetypical Aussie charcaters."

Renowned for her activist work, Phelan was Patron of Positive Women Victoria, an advocacy group supporting women living with HIV/AIDS, and a member of Actors for Refugees. In 2007, she received a Medal of the Order of Australia in the Queens Birthday Honours List for her "service to the arts as an actress, and to the community, particularly through support for women living with the HIV virus and for asylum seekers and refugees".

In December 2016, she received the Equity Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award.

"Anne was simply one of the best humans," MEAA Equity federal president Chloe Dallimore said in a statement.

"She was a lauded actor for her incredible body of work in our industry, but most importantly, a woman with a huge zest for life and a deep love for her union.

"I am reassured that in receiving the 2016 Equity Lifetime Achievement Award, Annie knew how adored and revered she was by all of us.

"Anne epitomised what [the award] is all about: recognising those special performers who inspire us with not only with their careers but also with their outstanding contribution to our industry as whole. She will be deeply be missed by all of us."

In an interview with The Age in 2002, Phelan attributed her activist streak to her "working class family in Fitzroy" who struggled during the Depression.

"I was brought up to be aware of less fortunate people, and I don't mean that in any derogatory sense," she said. "It was always that if there were three meals on the table you were bloody lucky and counted your blessings. Living in Fitzroy then, of course, you did feel that."

A jovial interviewee, she once suggested she worked so thoroughly in the Australian industry because she had "too many chins to work in America". In an interview with The Age in 2009, she also joked the song she'd "like played at her funeral" was I Just Wanna Dance from Jerry Springer: The Opera.

Original publication

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Citation details

Robert Moran, 'Phelan, Anne Mary (Annie) (1944–2019)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 May 2024.

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