Vale Phil Motherwell

The Pram Factory actor, who also appeared in such classic films as Mad Max and Monkey Grip, has died aged 67.

A recent photograph of Phil Motherwell taken by his close friend, artist Rod McNicol

The Australian arts industry this week mourns actor and playwright Phil Motherwell, 67 who passed away at approximately 5am on Sunday 9 November at St Vincent’s Hospital in Fitzroy after losing his battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Born in 1946, Motherwell was a key figure at ground-breaking 1970’s collective the Australian Performing Group (APG) and their Carlton venue The Pram Factory, as both an actor and writer.

His plays included such works as Dreamers of the Absolute, The Native Rose, Fitzroy Yank and Steal Away Home, the latter based on the life of his friend and colleague, Jack Charles.

In addition to a range of stage performances at La Mama, the Pram Factory and with the APG offshoot Nightshift (described as ‘a heavier, junkie, breakaway element’ doing ‘more edgy work’) Motherwell’s acting career also saw him appear in numerous Australian films including Pure Shit (1975), Mad Max (1979), Monkey Grip (1982), Stir (1980) and Everynight… Everynight (1995).

He was also recognised as a poet and as an excellent storyteller.

‘I knew Phil very closely, and I knew him personally too. He was a playwright, a writer, a poet, a scholar but above all he was a great storyteller – which made him a great actor too, because he could really get into getting a message across. He was a wonderful storyteller, and he was like that in day to day life, too,’ said photographic artist Rod McNicol.

‘He was a very vital storyteller, one might say, in all the senses of the word.’

Stories of Motherwell’s drug use and colourful past are well known. ‘And like some of the other artists in Australia who’ve been users as well, that wild side was part of what fed Phil’s art. At times it was also detrimental on his art but, you know, that’s life in a way. Some people use hardcore drugs just to get out of it. Others use it because they push themselves into areas in life that they make use of in a way,’ said McNicol.

Helpmann Award-nominated actor Jack Charles credits Motherwell for encouraging his fledgling career.

‘He had a significant impact on my life when the Pram was starting, and all that. I got to see all these experimental theatre practitioners starting to develop, and Phil was one of the ones who allowed me to stay at his place. I became very well acquainted with Phil and his family – not his family down in Brighton but the family he was developing at that time. We were members of his family, all of our mob that were there. I was the only Aboriginal amongst the lot,’ Charles laughed, ‘but nobody seemed to mind that.

‘And Phil was one of the ones that led me on this road to discovering my talents as an actor when I was trying to break into professional acting, and at the same time still doing a lot of work on the ground with no money at all.’

Charles hopes Motherwell will be rightfully remembered for his impact on the Australian theatre scene. ‘This bloke, he is a legend. He is a quiet legend, never acknowledged. Everybody knows in their hearts, in the community along the Lygon Street strip, all along Carlton, they know that Phil Motherwell was a legend,’ he said.

Playwright, director and theatre historian Robert Reid said Motherwell’s work remains influential today.

‘I saw the 2008 production of Nightshift at La Mama, which was really two monologues followed by Steal Away Home, probably Phil’s best remembered play. It was produced by Playbox back in ‘88 so the play text was published by Currency. It’s a play that deserves to be seen again. Motherwell’s writing is part of a long tradition in Australia that stretches back to Louis Esson.  Powerful, hard, the poet of Fitzroy. A lot of contemporary Australian writing like Declan Greene’s Moths (and my own Sweet Staccato Rising) owes a debt to Phil Motherwell,’ Reid said.

Director Alkinos Tsilimidos, who cast Motherwell in his films Everynight… Everynight and Tom White called him ‘an enigmatic artist, but he was also one of the most generous actors I’ve ever worked with. What I loved about Phil was he wore his dark side proudly; there was no bullshit about Phil and that’s what I loved in the man.

‘Those characters like Phil, we’re losing them, and I think he’ll be sadly missed. The streets of Carlton will miss him. He was an identity, but also a very private guy,’ said Tsilimidos.

Liz Jones, Artistic Director of La Mama Theatre said succinctly: ‘He was a legend, really.’

While Motherwell’s hellraising past is legendary, more recently he is remembered by those who knew him as a caring parent and doting grandparent, and a loyal friend.

‘Sometimes you have those really close friendships that are unconditional and non-judgemental and they’re really quite important things in your life; and Phil’s certainly in that category for me,’ McNicol said.

Motherwell is survived by Jenny, his partner of over 30 years, and their children and grandchildren. His funeral will be held at La Mama Theatre, Faraday Street, Carlton on Monday 17 November at 3pm.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts