DINGO, ERNIE

Australian Actor

Ernie Dingo is an Aboriginal Australian actor who has had an extensive career in film and television. Best known to international audiences through his film roles as Charlie in Crocodile Dundee II and as the Australian detective who chases William Hurt around the globe in Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World, Dingo has also become a familiar and popular figure on Australian television.

Dingo's television career is particularly significant for the way it has broken new ground in the medium's presentation of cultural difference. Initially taking roles scripted specifically for an Aboriginal actor by white writers and directors, he has worked consistently to broaden expectations of what Aboriginality can include and to introduce and popularise an understanding of Aboriginal perspectives on Australian life.

Ernie Dingo grew up around the small Western Australian town of Mullewa, where the local Aboriginal people still speak the traditional Wudjadi language. He first moved into acting in Perth when a basketball team to which he belonged formed a dance and cultural performance group Middar. From there, he moved into stage roles in plays by Western Australian Aboriginal playwright Jack Davis, before gaining a role in the television miniseries Cowra Breakout (1985) by Kennedy Miller for the Channel Ten network. Dingo's background in traditional and contemporary Aboriginal culture have been important to his work in television because, as he points out, working as an Aboriginal actor frequently involves working also (usually informally) as a consultant, cultural mediator, co-writer and translator.

Dingo's first major screen roles were in film, in Tudawali (1985), Fringe Dwellers (1986) and State of Shock (1989) all of which had white script writers and directors but which dealt sympathetically with problems of racism and disadvantage encountered by Aboriginal people. All three were small release productions designed substantially for television adaptation and/or distribution. In 1988 he was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Banff Television Festival for his powerful performance as one of Australia's first Aboriginal screen actors, Robert Tudawali, in Tudawali.

One of Dingo's main skills as an actor is an ability to engage audiences with an open, easy screen presence and use of humour, while also capturing serious moods dramatically and convincingly. It is perhaps this versatility, above all, which has made him highly effective as a cross-cultural communicator. Dingo's ability with lighter roles was first demonstrated by his performances in children's drama series, including Clowning Around (1992) and A Waltz Through the Hills (1990), for which he received an Australian Film Institute award for best actor in a Telefeature for his performance as an Aboriginal bushman, Frank Watson.

However, his first emergence as a popular figure of mainstream commercial television occurred with his inclusion in the comedy-variety program Fast Forward. He is particularly remembered for his comic take-off of prominent financial commentator Robert Gottliebsen, in which he imitated Gottliebsen's manner and appearance but translated his analysis of movements in share prices and exchange rates into colloquial Aboriginal English.

From Fast Forward, Dingo has moved on to roles in other popular programs such as The Great Outdoors and Heartbreak High. The latter two roles, as well as his role in Fast Forward, are significant because they are not clearly marked as specifically Aboriginal. In The Great Outdoors, Dingo appears alternately with other well-known Australian television personalities as a compere in light feature stories about leisure, travel and the environment. In Heartbreak High, he appears as Vic, a media studies teacher at multicultural Hartley High. Both roles have done much to normalise the appearance of Aboriginal people on Australian television and have provided an important counter to the often fraught treatment of Aboriginal issues in news and current affairs.

Dingo has also continued with serious dramatic roles with a major role as an Aboriginal police liaison officer, Vincent Burraga, in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's highly acclaimed drama series Heartland. The series was many ways groundbreaking, not only in its inclusion of Aboriginal people in script writing and production and frequent adoption of Aboriginal perspectives, but also for its naturalistic treatment of a cross-cultural romance between Vincent and white urbanite Elizabeth Ashton (Cate Blanchett). The series' ability to negotiate issues of cultural and political sensitivity was significantly dependent on Dingo's skills and magnetic screen presence.

Ernie Dingo has been acclaimed by some as one of Australia's finest contemporary actors. In addition, he has established a place as a major figure in extending mainstream awareness and understanding of Aboriginal Australia.

-Mark Gibson

ERNIE DINGO. Born in 1956. Began career as part of the Middar Aboriginal Dance Theatre, 1978; had various stage roles; in television from 1985; appearances in episodes of The Flying Doctors, Relative Merits, Rafferty's Rules, The Dirtwater Dynasty, and GP; in film from 1985; currently host of travel magazine television series, The Great Outdoors. Recipient: Banff Television Festival special prize; Australian Film Institute Award, 1990.

TELEVISION SERIES

1990      Dolphin Cove
1989-93 Fast Forward
1992      Clowning Around
1993      The Great Outdoors
1994      Heartland
1994-95 Heartbreak High

TELEVISION MINISERIES

1985 Cowra Outbreak
1990 A Waltz Through the Hills

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1986 The Blue Lightning

FILMS

Tudawali, 1985; The Fringe Dwellers, 1986; Crocadile Dundee 2, 1988; Cappuchino, 1988; State of Shock, 1989; Until the end of the world, 1991; Blackfellas, 1993; Mr. Electric, 1993.

FURTHER READING

Lewis, Berwyn. "Comedian with a Sting." Australia Now (Canberra, Australia), 1993.

Coolwell, Wayne. My Kind of People. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1993.

van Nunen, Linda. "The Games Ernie Plays." Australian Magazine (Sydney, Australia), January 1991.

 

See also Heartbreak High