THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH
EVEN across the crowded floor of Sydney’s perennially hip Tropicana Café, regular home to aspirant actors, unpublished poets, cons, models, celebrity lawyers and millionaire hairdressers, he stands out.
It’s not just that he’s thin and radiantly healthy. Nor that he has what old-time Hollywood agents might call “charisma”. Specifically, he has a face that triggers a feeling of déjà vu. You look at him and wonder – do I know you? Where have we met before?
That face belongs to actor Tony Bonner, 63, who at one time was about as famous as you can be in Australia. As star of the iconic television series Skippy in the 1960s he was, arguably, our first modern small screen pop icon.
Bonner sits in the corner of the inner-city Darlinghurst café and scores of people pay their respects, wave, nod in acknowledgement of his presence. (As a friend says, wherever Tony Bonner is, he is like an unofficial mayor, meeting and greeting everyone in his vicinity.)
On this day he welcomes you with that firm, clear, beautifully modulated voice that transcends decades. It echoes to you from The Man From Snowy River, The Anzacs, The Lighthorsemen, The Mango Tree and more than fifty other films and television shows.
“Nice to see you again, as always,” he says, standing courteously. He orders coffee and, as is his custom, the Tropicana’s “Children’s Breakfast” – a light fare of toast, a single egg, and a couple of slender bacon rashes.
Two more acquaintances say hello. Toddlers are playing happily at the adjacent table. The sun is shining outside. And Bonner appears to be his usual positive and cheery self. Which is why everything jars so abruptly when the conversation turns to suicide.
“I have lived with these thoughts since I was 15 years old,” he says. “I’ve ridden horses, driven motorcycles, sailed, done some dangerous things, and I did all of them, I think, with a suicidal tendency.
“I would never sit down with a gun, knives, pills, but I’ve certainly flirted with suicide as an escape while pursuing those physical activities. I’ve always been propelled to push everything in my life to the very outer limit. In many ways I’m lucky to be alive.
“At the moment I’m tired of the superficiality of life. The quest for material things and surface adulation. I would like to move north, to Queensland. I’ve always loved it up there. Or Los Angeles. Or who knows, maybe Turkey. I am someone looking for a safe harbour.”
He says this with the utmost honesty and sincerity. And when the little children’s breakfast arrives, and he takes up his knife and fork, you realise that he left behind Jerry King, the blond fresh-faced helicopter pilot in Skippy, a long, long time ago.
Between then and now there have been many Tony Bonners – the Manly boy who ended up acting with some of the biggest international stars of his era, the playboy, the husband and father of three daughters, the alcoholic and drug addict, the tireless charity worker and mentor, the surf fanatic. He is dichotomous. Multi-faceted. A puzzle.
Finishing his breakfast, he says: “I’m still waiting for that epiphany, that moment, that suggests to me what I’m here for, what I’m doing here.” He dabs his mouth with a serviette, and for the first time looks genuinely perplexed. “What’s it all about? That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer all my life.”
By 1966, Tony Bonner had a modest reputation in Sydney as a stage performer and model. Only a few years earlier, he may have caught the occasional pedestrian’s eye working as a window dresser in Bebarfelds department store, opposite Sydney Town Hall.
Born in the Manly area on Sydney’s North Shore, he left school without any real crystalline career in mind. His grandfather had once been the mayor of Manly and a founding president of the suburb’s famous life saving club. And Bonner’s father, Frederick, had been a musical comedy actor in Her Majesty’s Theatre, working alongside light opera singer Gladys Moncrieff and actor/dancer Robert Helpmann.
“I knew I wanted to do something creative,” Bonner says. “I had a good eye for symmetry and balance. I worked for a company that supplied materials for window dressing, and in the early 60s was asked to dress windows at Bebarfelds. By then the theatre bug had got me.”
Bonner then began his stage career as a “dresser”, or wardrobe attendee to the stars of the evening shows at Her Majesty’s. By day he studied singing and dance. He eventually made it into the limelight, as a chorus member, in a production of Annie Get Your Gun.
During his stage apprenticeship he lived in a terrace house in Victoria Street, Potts Point, near Kings Cross – an area renowned for its bohemian lifestyle. It was here he initiated his lifelong friendship with photographer Jon (CORRECT) Waddy.
“We must have been about 18 when we first met,” Waddy recalls. “It was a wonderful time, everybody knew each other, and there were terrific restaurants like Vadim’s at the top of Challis Avenue where all the actors went for dinner after the shows. They used to serve alcohol in tea cups after 9pm because of the liquor laws. Anybody who was anybody was there.
“Tony was doing some modelling at the time. Later, I was the one who took the famous nude centrefold photograph of him for Cosmopolitan magazine. We used to drink together and go to parties. He was living a few doors up from me when Skippy started.”
Australian fashion guru Trent Nathan says he used to “hang out” with Bonner during the Skippy period. “He was a very handsome man then and I’m sure he still is,” says Nathan. “I suppose he was a bit wild back then. He hit it. But I think we all hit it. We were good friends and we went our separate ways.”
Bonner had secured a role in the landmark show which, in 1966, aired at prime time on Sunday nights. The program centred on an uncannily intelligent bush kangaroo, its owner Sonny Hammond (Garry Pankhurst) and head ranger Matt Hammond (Ed Devereaux). It was set in the fictitious Waratah National Park. Bonner played a flight ranger. By the time the first episode – “The Poachers” – had finished airing, Bonner was literally famous.
“It was enormous,” Bonner says. “In Australia in the 60s there weren’t a lot of home grown film stars. There was nothing being made. I was like a pop idol overnight. I was a young fella. There was no one else around.
“I never ran from it, Skippy. It was an important part of my past. I drank in the same bars and restaurants after the show started. Lived in the same place. The attention was pretty nice sometimes, and sometimes it wasn’t. I always treated people with the same manners and respect. Some didn’t act the same way towards me.
“Whoever I was seeing, too, we were never just ‘good friends’ in the eyes of the press. They’d beat up stories about me. When the show became an international hit, some of them (journalists) made careers off the lies they printed about me.”
These were heady times, especially for a young man who had started drinking when he was 15. Overnight fame only worsened matters.
“During that period I very rarely had to buy a drink and I think this fame helped to sustain my drinking,” Bonner reflects. “If you’re an open, agreeable person, like I was, people would buy you drinks. I’m not blaming anyone – I always had the choice to say thank you and no – but that went on for the next thirty years.”
That same year Bonner scored a minor role in the classic Australian film They’re a Weird Mob, directed by Michael Powell and starring Chips Rafferty. (It remains one of the highest grossing local films – in the context of its time – in history.)
In 1967, at the close of Skippy’s first season, Bonner asked for a pay rise and perhaps a small share in overseas sales and other residuals. The show was on its way to becoming a huge international hit, and would eventually air in more than 120 countries. Bonner’s request was rejected. (In the forty years since the show’s creation, he has “never received a penny” in residual or royalty payments.)
“I just left the country,” he says. “I hopped on a plane and went to London.”
The charismatic Bonner quickly secured work, filming You Can’t Win ‘Em All (1970), a period “soldier of fortune” piece alongside Tony Curtis and Charles Bronson in Turkey. This was followed by the now cult classic Creatures the World Forgot (1971), shot on location in Africa, and episodes of the then popular British television show The Persuaders, again starring Curtis and Roger Moore.
Bonner, by anyone’s standards, had made it. He worked and partied hard, favouring the famous Tramps nightclub in London, and lived periodically on the island of Ibitha, Spain, where he did some “sculpting and swimming”. In 1972 he dashed back to Australia to see his parents, and met model Nola Clark at a party.
“We hit it off but I had to go back to London,” he says. “I told her if she ever found herself over there she could look me up in this bar called Tramps. Some time later I was in the bar and the concierge came up to me and said this great looking girl was asking for me. I walked up the stairs and it was Nola.”
They travelled to Rome together and a romance blossomed. Nola returned to Australia, and not long after Bonner turned up unannounced at her 21st birthday party in Melbourne. They were soon married. “It was late 1972,” Bonner says. “We were married for twenty years. We have three wonderful daughters. These things happen. The tide comes in, and the tide goes out.”
In 1974 Bonner starred in an Australian thriller called Inn of the Damned. On the set he met another of his close male friends, the former surf champion and now Gold Coast-based film producer and director Phil Avalon.
“Funnily enough, when Tony left Skippy I auditioned for his role and didn’t get it,” Avalon says. “I’ve known him my entire adult life. He’s a very fine actor, and has done an incredible body of work. I believe, given the right vehicle, he could have been our biggest movie star – bigger than Mel Gibson, bigger than Russell Crowe.
“To this day he’s an extremely handsome man, and he certainly has the right voice. He’s totally dedicated to his craft. But he was probably a mite too early. And he may have had a self-destructive streak when he should have concentrated on the work. If he had been an American, I have no doubt he would have been huge, and still in huge demand for work.”
That self-destructive streak did continue to surface in Bonner’s life, and by his own admittance it nearly destroyed him. There were several incidents in bars, street brawls involving knives, and weeks on end that were just a blank.
“There was lots of stuff,” Bonner says. “I used to push the envelope, be sarcastic with people. Why, I don’t know. I could hear myself saying these words to people, awful words, and I could hear an inner voice at the same time telling me to shut my mouth. Later, I’d go and beat the crap out of myself for saying those things.
“I had so many blackouts in my life. I did a lot of stupid things. I rode my motorcycle into people’s houses. I would go to a barbecue with my wife and children and drink with the men and ignore my family and when they went home I’d stay drinking. Then I might go home a few hours later, or a day later. I’d go to sleep in London and wake up in Turkey. Go to sleep in Sydney and wake up in Perth.”
Despite this, Bonner managed to continue producing fine work in Australia and overseas. But the demon remained close by, and eventually cost him his marriage.
“I always knew the title for my autobiography,” Bonner says. “I would call it – Was I There? For years people would relay stories to me and I’d always ask – was I there?”
In the late 1980s, following years of prolonged drinking and occasional drug abuse, he suffered pleurisy and pneumonia. It was then he left his family– his wife, Nola, and children Chelsea, now 31, Skye, 30, and Hannah, 27 - and checked into a Melbourne clinic.
“We wouldn’t know where he was for days or weeks at a time,” says Chelsea. “He was absolutely outrageous. All the kids in the street loved him. He was like a cartoon character. It was fun having a character like that in your life, but for a kid it can be quite confusing.”
Daughter Skye recalls: “We weren’t taught to feel we had a sense of sanctuary at home. He’s perplexing to me to this day. But you have to love him the way he is. That’s life. You get on with it.”
Bonner emerged from the clinic sober and has remained so ever since. That was 17 years ago. He has never remarried. He still attends AA meetings. His charity work would exhaust half a dozen people. He still believes, with all his heart, in the art of acting. And he dotes on his 11-year-old granddaughter, Maddison (CORRECT), who lives in Brisbane with her mother Skye. (A former Miss Indy, Skye was briefly engaged to Madison’s father, one-time ironman champion Guy Andrews.)
“Maddison has been an incredible thing for Dad,” says Chelsea. “It’s a new little person with his genes who hasn’t seen any of the terrible things he’s done. He has made no mistakes with her. She’s a new, clean human being and he can be the ‘new’ Tony. He’s loving being a grandfather.”
Skye Bonner confirms: “The Bonner side of the family is a little bit crazy, and maybe there’s some theatrics involved, but Maddison is completely taken with Tony. She feels the softness, the little lost boy in him. I get to see Dad through her eyes.”
Yet those unceasing questions continue to haunt Bonner.
“I want to position myself where things are important, where things matter, and that’s family,” he says. “I am a bohemian in a sense, but I miss that structure of family. It’s all we’re here for. It’s the only real mark we leave on the world.”
BONNER’S contribution to Australian cultural life is immense, and he continues to pour his energies into his craft, often for little or no remuneration.
Whilst he is renowned for his charity work, including volunteer patrols for the Manly Lifesaving Club, and his work for the Variety Club of Australia (in particular the Queensland chapter), few are aware of his generosity towards younger generations of Australian actors. He is repeatedly acclaimed as a teacher of drama, and yet passes on his skills for a pittance, and often for free.
“Dad’s a soft touch,” says Chelsea, now a successful small businesswoman who is also based at Manly. “When it comes to giving young actors classes, he knows what it’s like to be young and starting out with no money, and he simply wouldn’t ask them for a fee. He believes what he does is an art form. How do you put a price on that? He’s one of the last purists.”
Jon Waddy says the hours Bonner puts into surf lifesaving is flabbergasting.
“In the last few years he has put in more hours than anyone at the (Manly) club, a record, and he’s 63,” says Waddy. “I’m a good member and I think I did 15 hours last year. Tony did 400 hours. If he put as many hours into his acting and teaching as he did his charity work, financially he’d be a very comfortable man.”
Bonner himself has the same professional desires he had as a teenager. He wants to continue to act in film and television, and to teach. Avalon has two films slated for this year, and hopes to enlist Bonner in both. There is a potential television series on the horizon. A smattering of theatre.
Daughter Chelsea is circumspect about her father. “His needs are very simplistic,” she says. “A roof over his head. A motorcycle. A salad roll in the fridge. He’s had all the trappings of wealth. He lived the high life. He had the yacht and the houses and the cars. Some of it made him happy and some of it didn’t.
“My father has had nine lives. It’s a Bonner family trait. He says he wants to anchor himself now, but at the same time he can’t decide where that might be, or what that means. He’s never really settled anywhere. He’s never had a settled life.”
She says it took years for both of them to resolve their differences after the family broke up.
“He’s manic, and a lot of people thought that mania would go when he stopped drinking, but in some ways the alcohol was a sedative for him,” Chelsea says. “It took the edge off his personality. To me he’s not a father in a conventional sense, but a sort of older, crazy brother. We talk to each other now about absolutely everything in our lives, and I think we have a relationship that not many children and parents would have.”
Skye says she “prays” that he finds a settled life. “He’s never really in the present moment. He’s always looking everywhere else but the present, and is never at ease. I think his inner-world is in a constant state of flux. I pray he finds what he’s looking for, that safe place. Dad’s journey can sometimes be difficult to watch. It doesn’t mean he’s unhappy. He’s a survivor.”
Waddy says it was time his friend Bonner’s “ship came in”.
“What is his purpose in life? As a hedonist, as Tony seriously was for thirty years, you don’t ask that question,” Waddy says. “You have to love him. He’s a wonderful friend and he would do anything for you, no matter what it was, no questions asked. Yes he’s complex, but he has a heart of gold. He has given so much to so many people for so many years, it’s really time something came back to him. He deserves his time, and that time will come.”
In the Tropicana, Bonner is gathering together his legendary satchel. It goes with him everywhere. In it he has his mobile phone, scraps of paper covered in ideas and reminders, pens, keys, perhaps the copy of a play or a script, and other accoutrements that see him through the day. Bonner has said that he could survive, and go forth, just with the clothes on his back and the satchel.
Walking up Victoria Street he sees in sidewalk cafes other friends and acquaintances, and all are given a warm greeting. Each recipient beams happily at the sight of Bonner. He is brimming with energy. His openness and friendliness is infectious.
Further down the street he stops and looks incredulously at a closed down dry cleaning shop. The doors are locked, the store empty, and already the shopfront glass is gritted with traffic exhaust. It looks like it has been shut for twenty years. “It was open just the other day,” Bonner says, almost to himself.
“When I was 16 I wrote to a yogandada-type fellowship in the United States and asked them – who am I? Why am I here?” Bonner confides. “I said to them I’m just starting out in life and I’m lost. I told them I see pain in people, which affects me. What am I to be? An actor? A teacher? A father?
“I’m still on that journey. I’m not being precious. I’d like to know these answers. I’m willing to go to some length of insanity to find out. At my age I should know, but I assure you, I don’t.”
It is impossible not to be endeared to Bonner. To his questing, his brutal personal honesty, and his search for safe harbour.
He leaves, turns, and salutes from a distance. Watching him disappear, you wonder what it is that makes Bonner so touchingly human, and you can’t help but think that the answers to some of his questions have been given to him over the many years of his colourful life.
And yet like so many of us, he just wasn’t in a position, at that moment, to hear them.