1941 – 2022
One of our most recognisable and versatile character actors, his career covered almost 60 years of film and television roles yet he was never one to boast of his achievements.
Barry performed in over 60 feature films and 47 television series in Australia and New Zealand. He was still working as an actor, filming in Tasmania on Bay of Fires, right up to a few weeks before his death on December 21 at the age of 81. His passing is being reported internationally.
Fellow actor Sam Neill was among those who paid tribute, writing in a tweet that Barry was a "lovely man, terrific actor and hero of mine".
Filmmaker, David Bradbury, said ‘I lost my best mate last week. Not my “best buddy”, not “my bro”. But my best mate”…
The longevity of Barry’s acting career was recognised when he received the 2014 Film Critics Circle of Australia award for his "extraordinary contribution to the Australian film industry".
Tony Barry was widely loved and respected by the industry for his commitment to acting but was not nearly as well known for his social and humanitarian work off screen.
He channelled his considerable compassion and communication skills to help others through teaching and mentoring. He volunteered to work with disadvantaged people in correctional centres and brought about substantial cultural changes. So successful was he that Correctional Services headhunted him to work with Youth At Risk at Meadowbank Tafe where he remained for five years. He directed training videos for teachers of children with Asperger’s, and for four years was Chairman of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee. He was committed to environmental issues and established the Young Environmental Protectors (YEP) High School Art Competition in his home area of Northern Rivers. A tireless worker for human rights, appropriately, Barry was patron of the annual Heart of Gold International Film Festival, held in Gympie, Queensland.
Tony Barry was also a staunch supporter of Actors Benevolent Fund and right up to October this year he was volunteering to travel to Sydney to help with fundraising during the ABF ACTober campaign.
Born in Ipswich, Queensland, Barry was educated at St Patricks College Drumcondra. His working life began with a diversity of short-lived jobs, including in retail, a storeman, and barkeeper and waiter before he eventually made his screen debut in 1968 with a role in Skippy.
With his deep, warm Australian voice and weather beaten face he quickly became one of the stalwarts of the many Crawford’s TV productions at the time as well as roles in such series as The Box, Certain Women, A Country Practice, Grass Roots, Halifax f.p., Rake, Scales of Justice, Mystery Road, and many others.
His film career began in 1977 with The Mango Tree swiftly followed by other notable film roles including Newsfront, The Irishman, We of the Never Never, The Odd Angry Shot, The Man from Snowy River ll, Paperback Hero, The Night We Called it a Day, Australia and Home for Christmas for which he won Best Actor in the 2010 New Zealand Film and TV Awards.
Barry became best known in New Zealand for his role in the comedy Goodbye Pork Pie (1980). The picture achieved instant cult status and Barry received the sobriquet of 'honorary Kiwi' and was the only Australian to feature on a postage stamp.
His career also included stage roles most notably A Local Man, a one-man play written for him by Bob Ellis & Dr. Robin McLachlan based on the life on Ben Chifley, Australia’s most loved Prime Minister. The play was inspired by childhood experiences of both Barry and Bob Ellis. At the passing of Chifley both men were astonished to see their fathers cry for the first time. “We’ve lost a great man” Barry’s father said and his son never forgot the moment.
The play debuted in Bathurst in 2004 and played a season at the Ensemble Theatre followed by a national tour. Ellis said, "The effect of Tony as Chifley is astonishing. He doesn't exactly play the man himself but he plays to perfection the kind of 1930s and 1940s Australian man, sort of limited in his way but strong and absolutely uncorrupted, immovable in his principles. Tony has possibly the best Australian working-class voice. He had never been on stage until the year he first performed A Local Man. To get up to speed he played King Lear at the Bondi Pavilion”.
In 2014, between seasons of the TV drama series The Time of Our Lives, Barry had his left leg amputated above the knee due to melanoma. The loss of his leg was written into the storyline.
Undaunted by working in a wheelchair Barry continued to act appearing in Total Control, The End and Seriously Red. Despite regular bouts in hospital and the difficulty of travelling, he still managed to fly seven times to and from Tasmania to film Bay of Fires.
Always optimistic, despite of his health issues, he was developing another one man show called A Good Look Around which explored his life and times in film, TV, activism, cancer recovery and his 33 years as a member of a Drug and Alcohol Recovery program and the transformations he witnessed with fellow participants. He had planned to tour it in 2021 but was thwarted by Covid lockdowns.
His devotion to helping his fellow performing artists was demonstrated at a 2019 Actors Benevolent Fund fundraising event, High Standards, organised by Fraser Corford and the late Michael Falzon. Following speaking in support of ABF during the performance at The City Recital Hall, Barry took an ABF collection bucket on his lap and wheeled his chair round the foyer post show. He collected over $5,000 in donations from the audience.
Always a local man at heart he gave much of his limited time to supporting the Drill Hall Theatre in Mullumbimby where he was the much-loved patron and acting advisor.
We cannot sum up Tony Barry actor, humanitarian, activist and eternal optimist better than a quote from a local friend.
“One of the most lovely humans. No matter what was happening…he always offered a positive comment and a cheeky little grin. Geez I’m going to miss seeing him jetting around …”
‘Tony is survived by his son, Bou Barry, his two granddaughters, his sister, nieces and nephews.
In his memory the opening performance of the next production at the Drill Hall Theatre will be dedicated to the memory of Tony Barry.
Donations can be made to ABF in his honour.
What: When the Rain Stops Falling
When: 25 January.
Where: Drill Hall Theatre
4 Jubilee Ave
Mullumbimby NSW 2482