LEADING MAN — IN ART AND LIFE
As the 2012 recipient of Equity’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Ron Haddrick has taken his rightful place in the pantheon of great Australian performers. Alex Speed reports.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2012 edition of The Equity Magazine. Vale Ron Haddrick 1929–2020.
In November, the much-loved actor Ron Haddrick took a very special bow in what has been an illustrious 65-year career. This time, the audience at his old stomping ground, the Sydney Theatre Company, where he has helped bring to life the works of Tennessee Williams, Dickens, Shakespeare, Chekhov and many others, was made up entirely of friends and peers who had gathered to see him receive the 2012 Equity Lifetime Achievement Award. Presented by FOXTEL, the award honours Ron’s distinguished career in film, television, radio and theatre, as well as his commitment to The Actors Benevolent Fund of NSW, which raises money for performers unable to work due to injury, illness or disability.
“Ron was chosen for two reasons,” says David Williamson. “He’s a great actor, definitely one of the greatest of his generation, and also a great human being who has enriched the lives of countless Australians through his acting. He has also enriched the lives of many of us who work in the theatre because of his dedication and palpable decency.”
Now aged 83, Ron made his stage debut at the Tivoli Theatre in Adelaide in 1946. He caught the acting bug thanks to his father, who often took his young son to the theatre to see musicals and plays. In 1953, with seven years’ performance in amateur and semi-professional theatre and radio under his belt, Ron auditioned for British actor Anthony Quayle. At the time, Quayle was co-artistic director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, now the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company), and was on tour in Australia. He invited Ron to join his company and, during five seasons there, Ron performed alongside Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave.
“I was fortunate enough to perform with these great actors and watch how they worked,” Ron says. “I took on board a lot of the things I learned. One was that they all rehearsed flat out. There was none of this walking through rehearsals saying, ‘When we play, I’ll do this and this’, which I had seen at home. From then on, I always tried to rehearse flat out, so you can talk over whatever it is you’re performing, and discuss it and build on that.”
Ron returned to Australia in 1959 and worked with the Trust Players. He went on to perform in more than 40 productions for the Old Tote Theatre Company.
John Bell cast Ron as the scoundrel Jock in the original 1977 stage production of David Williamson’s The Club, which premiered at the Nimrod, now Belvoir, in Sydney. It later transferred to the Theatre Royal, and toured Brisbane and Canberra, before moving on to the Melbourne Theatre Company, touring to Perth and Adelaide. The following year, Bell took The Club to London, where it continued to play to full houses, first at the Hampstead Theatre and then the Old Vic.
David Williamson relishes the memory of Ron’s depiction of Jock. “Jock is an incompetent villain who thinks he’s a lot smarter than he is,” Williamson says. “Ron, who usually played the good guy, had a ball being the villain. He has a marvellous comic ability and went for it hammer and tongs. He had the audience so convulsed with laughter during the pot-smoking scene, he had to find ways of sustaining the action until the laughter died down enough for the next line to be heard. To me, Jock was one of Ron’s defining roles. I know I’m biased because I wrote the play, but it’s still one of my great career memories.” Ron agrees with Williamson that the play was a career high point.
John Bell, who spoke at the awards presentation alongside Peter Carroll and Hannah Norris, said Ron continues to inspire him. “Ron’s career has been extraordinary. I remember seeing him on the stage when I was at still at university in the 1950s and he inspired me then. As it turned out, my first job was with the Old Tote Theatre Company where Ron was one of the lead actors and I was lucky enough to work alongside him. I found him to be one of the most agreeable, courteous and inspiring actors you could hope to work with as a young man starting out. I later went on to direct him in several productions, including The Club, which I regard as one of his greatest performances, but with Ron there have been so many. He is undoubtedly one of the leading lights in the Australian acting industry and he is much loved, admired and respected, because of both his professionalism and his good nature. The fact that he is still acting, and still inspiring younger actors, is remarkable. He is a wonderful example to all of us.”
Ron has worked for nearly every major theatre company in Australia and has played many coveted roles, including King Lear and Macbeth. In 1987, he received the Sydney Critics Circle Award for Long Day’s Journey into Night and I’m Not Rappaport.
As well as his stage performances, Ron has done hundreds of radio dramas, and appeared in countless films and television shows, including Cop Shop, Mother & Son, Underbelly, Water Rats and Home and Away. Most recently, he was the melodic narrator of the television adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel, Cloudstreet.
In his gentle, understated manner, Ron says he is greatly touched and honoured to be chosen to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award. “The great English actor Ralph Richardson was asked once about acting and his only reply was, ‘It’s a mystery’, and I concur with that. You can study, do your research, delve into the character and rehearse, but then what happens on the stage on any particular night is a mystery. It can all click together and be quite magical. That doesn’t happen very often but occasionally everything clicks and somehow you know that, whatever happens, you just can’t go wrong and that is an amazing feeling. Of course, on the nights it doesn’t all click together you can be in trouble.” Ron laughs. “Mine has been a life of highs and lows, and there have been plenty of both, but fortunately I think more highs than lows.”
Alex Speed is a Sydney-based freelance journalist. This article was originally published in the Summer 2012 edition of The Equity Magazine.