CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

INTERVIEW:
GERARD KENNEDY

 


Copyright 2005 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


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This interview originally appeared in TV EYE No. 13, December 1997.

Gerard Kennedy is one of Australia's most popular and respected actors, with a string of awards to his credit, including two Gold Logies.  Well-known for his roles as Kragg in Hunter and Detective Frank Banner in Division 4, Gerard's career also included lead roles in Tandarra, Against The Wind and The Last Outlaw, plus many other film and TV parts.

 

Where did your television career begin?

I’d just come down to Melbourne from Brisbane and was finding it difficult to get any work. I got a stage job, and I was going to see directors every week, hawking myself around, not having a great deal of success. I was doing the occasional spear-holding job for the ABC: no words, no lines, no nothing, just spear-holding! Then I did an audition for Crawfords, and I was getting substantial repeated guest roles, lead roles actually, but I was still only holding spears for the ABC! After a little over a year of that Crawfords offered me Hunter.

In one of your Homicide roles your character killed Sgt. Bronson.

Yes. I shot him out of the series and gave Les Dayman the opportunity to take his place!

Did they give you the role of Kragg as a result of that?

Dorothy Crawford seemed to take a shine to me at my audition, and Ian Jones was quite enthusiastic to give me a part. Although Ian did say when I played the Ryan character in Homicide he had somebody else in mind, but he was happy how it turned out. So I guess that was why they started to use me a lot, and then they made the Hunter offer. It was actually rather funny - on the first day of shooting Hunter, while I was waiting on location a blind person came to the side of the road, and so I helped him across. Then Ian turns up, and here’s his villain helping a blind person cross the road! I suppose I could say, in a sense, that as far as Hunter was concerned as a baddie I was a failure, because they changed me over to a goodie! It was a very weird sort of thing, because there I was playing this baddie, killing people left right and centre, and every now and again I remember the experience of a tram load of children going past and yelling out "Hey, Kragg, yeah, yeah!" And I thought ‘What’s the world coming to, I’m supposed to be a villain, not a hero!’

Kragg didn’t come across as an out and out baddie, but rather as a misguided idealist.

Yes, with some degree of confusion. Mind you, I always tried to play villains, I enjoyed playing villains, I enjoy their truth, their confusion - there’s more to explore. We could get on to a whole philosophical thing, but I have a very deep soft spot for people who go off the rails.

Kragg was right up your alley then.

Yes!

Kragg was a support role, which became a co-lead that viewers enjoyed - the baddie-come goodie character almost took the show over.

I think one of the reasons for it was that Ian Jones created the character, because Ian is such a devotee of Ned Kelly, and is able to write with an empathy for those sorts of characters. Otherwise, who would have predicted it? Now the industry has developed that way, and I heard it stated only recently in an interview for a new show: ‘You have got to have an evil person for the show to be a success’. Look at J.R. in Dallas, or Pat The Rat in Sons And Daughters. To me, from a psychological point of view, I think that is because of the percentage of people in the population who never win, and they like to see somebody from their position, with their resentments, etc., doing what they wouldn’t be game to do themselves, and wouldn’t be able to get away with in real life. Having somebody do it, I think, has a therapeutic value. Now it seems to me that therapy has the opposite effect - it now turns out to be an encouragement for anti-social behaviour, by setting up a role model for people to copy-cat. Even when I was in Division 4 it worried me quite considerably, because I had at least two policemen say to me ‘We know what the bulk of MO’s will be for any particular week, because we can look at the MO’s that were established in Division 4’. But one of them added ‘Don’t worry about it, because those people would have committed a crime anyway; all you did was channel them’.

It probably made them easier to catch because the police knew what they were going to do!

But I still didn’t feel quite right about it!

But Kragg was different because he believed in what he was doing - he wasn’t a nasty type who hated children and beat up old ladies and stole their handbags.

He was a misguided goodie.

The way Kragg developed made his defection seem almost inevitable. Even as early as the third episode Kragg seemed reluctant to kill people; you were showing the soft side of Kragg which came out later with Georgie Savage.

Well, maybe that’s why I’m a failure as a baddie. Because from within myself I see the pathos of the person who has gone off the rails, and the misdirection of what is basically a desire in everybody, and that is to put things right, but it just becomes misguided.

After Tony left the show did it feel like it had lost it’s reason for existing - Hunter without Hunter?

Well, it was a bit of an embarrassment. They tried to make it work by putting me in that role in the organisation, I was playing a sort of co-Hunter role with Rod Mullinar who went on to play Ryan, but it was a bit difficult, it didn’t really work. The other alternative was to change the name of the show because they wanted to keep me going, and keep a spy show going.

A spin-off called ‘Kragg’? Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

Ha ha! Oh well, I don’t know! I think it had possibilities, because you could have included that evil background. That was one of the successes of having Kragg on the goodies side, because you never quite knew whether he was trustworthy, there was always that little niggling doubt. I think it could have created, well not created but contributed towards, a genre if they had gone that way - it was a possibility. But they decided to go another way - with Division 4. And I was quite happy with that because it meant playing a different character.

You were in Division 4 for six years. Why did you decide to leave?

There were all these things happening around me, it was like I was wandering through a maze and being pointed in this direction and being pointed in that direction, I didn’t know where I was. It was not what I came into the industry for, I came into the industry to, hopefully, be a well worked character actor. Not to play leads, except maybe occasionally, but basically just to play character roles, and be well worked and earn a living. I came down here form Brisbane to see if I could earn my living as an actor, and after I’d been in the business for some time with Crawfords, for eight and a half years, I still hadn’t proved to myself that I could earn my living as an actor, because I’d been under the umbrella of Crawfords playing the two characters. To me an actor is somebody who plays many characters, and I was becoming an institution almost, so I wanted to move on and see if I could earn my living as an actor on my terms. So I tried to get out, and it wasn’t easy to get out - it ended up being a whole political scenario when Division 4 finished, because of the political aspects of the TV: Make It Australian Campaign. I had a direct confrontation with Kerry Packer because I wanted to leave, and there was a lot of hidden agenda going on that I wasn’t even aware of, so I just did the best I could. But I finally got out and found that I could just maybe struggle by making a living as an actor!

Division 4 was the first of the Crawford police series to go, and many believe it was no coincidence that Matlock and Homicide followed shortly afterwards.

Kerry Packer said if I left Division 4 he would cancel the show. I tried, I gave it another six months in the hope that some resolution could be found, and John Stanton, who had been employed to replace me, could go ahead and do the job. But it didn’t happen.

So it’s all your fault!

It’s all my fault! Exactly! But seriously, I tried to do the right thing by everybody, but in politics that’s not necessarily going to be successful, because you’ve got hidden agenda around you. We’ve got a little bit of a problem here because we’re getting close to libel; the trouble is, I suppose, if you touch upon it then it leads to this and it leads to that, and before you know it you’re embroiled in all kinds of suppositions. Not that I knew everything that was going on, I’m politically naive as a personality, and I was wandering through this scenario totally naive, a boy from the bush basically.

So there was all this political stuff happening around you, and all you wanted to do was be an actor?

Well I was happy to be an activist re 'TV: Make It Australian' despite my political naivety. I learned a lot. But also I wanted to look after myself as an actor, by playing different parts and so forth. Over the years I approached Crawfords and said I would like to do something different. It took a while to explain that to them, they kept thinking ‘Oh you want more money’, and I said ‘No, I don’t want more money, I just want to spread myself as an actor’, and they said ‘Oh, you want to be seen more on the screen’, and I said ‘No, no, no...’.

So eventually they said ‘We haven’t got a new show for you, but in the meantime we’ll put you on The Box until we have’. Which didn’t happen - Nine objected because it was a rival station. I felt trapped, there is an enormous amount of pressure, you’ve got this whole organisation that is relying on you, that is a big pressure, a really big pressure. It seemed to me a reasonable transition for John Stanton to take over the role gradually. Kerry Packer owned TV Week, and all you had to do was put the photograph of the one you wanted to become more popular on the cover of TV Week, and it would have worked. I personally didn’t feel that I was the star of Division 4, to me it was an ensemble production, but I was being made a fuss of, and that always seemed to me to be incorrect. I see myself as a pawn in that whole scenario, and I didn’t really know what was going on around me. I felt I was giving everybody a chance, it seemed like a fair offer - I agreed to do another six months, after they had already accepted my resignation and arranged for Stanton as the replacement. I felt sorry for John as he was also caught up in this whole thing.

It was reported that Seven told Homestead Films that if you weren’t in Tandarra they weren’t going to buy it.

Really? I didn’t know that! Good heavens! I did a guest role in the last episode of Cash & Company, and then they continued it on. But it only went for the one year. I think people tried to capitalise on that popularity that I gained, but I don’t think the box office was as responsive as they expected. I think the public were able to cope with me going from Hunter to Division 4, but another change again I think was too much, because people associate you in a role so much.

Towards the end of your Division 4 run you had a part in Rush. It was a bit unusual for Crawfords to let one of their actors appear in another production.

That was part of Crawfords deference to me, as I was constantly trying to express this need to play more than one character, and so they allowed me to do that.

At the time of the 'TV: Make It Australian Campaign', the networks were arguing against Australian content regulation. However, while Nine had you in Division 4 and it was rating well they were happy for it to keep going, but they weren’t really interested in continuing the series with John Stanton. Rather, they’d prefer to stop Division 4 and buy some cheap soaps and cheap American programmes.

From a business point of view, there was no question: if you have to pay the ratio, which at that time was $40,000 an hour for an Australian drama compared to buying an hour of American television for $4,000, this was not good business. The networks were faced with the fact that Australian production was becoming more and more popular, so the only thing they could do was try and discredit Australian production. So money was actually invested into shows like Luke’s Kingdom, and then they weren’t shown for two years - and when they were it was at 11 o’clock at night.

Production standards dropped - we went from Homicide to Cop Shop and The Restless Years.

All done on video and with a soapie format.

If they were forced to have local production then they were going to have it as cheap as possible.

Exactly. But then, at the other end of the scale, we had big success with the mini-series, which, I could be wrong, but I think it was Australia that introduced the concept of the mini-series in television.

Everyone credits the U.S. series Roots as the first. But if you think about the concept, why not go back to the 1960's with Stormy Petrel, My Brother Jack, and You Can’t See Round Corners.

Yes, of course. And into the 70’s with shows like Power Without Glory. An enormous amount of origination comes out of Australia which it doesn’t get credit for. The Mad Max genre for film - the Yanks started copying that - and are still copying it!

Dinny O’Byrne in the Against The Wind mini-series must have been a great character for you to play.

Yes, it was just fantastic. I really loved it.

Was the Irish accent relatively easy after Tandarra?

Tandarra wasn’t Irish - it was Northern Irish - Belfast. Dinny O’Byrne was Southern Irish - County Wicklow. Actually that was a really big fluke, I just guessed what a Wicklow accent might be, and Mary Larkin actually told me that it was bang on for a Wicklow accent - it was a total fluke!

You’re not supposed to say that - you’re supposed to say you spent hours researching it, etc.!

Ha ha! No, it was a fluke! I’ve always enjoyed the Irish characters - Harry Power in The Last Outlaw, etc.

In a Hunter episode it mentions Kragg as being an Irish name.

Was it? I thought it was sort of Slavic. It was invented - purely invented. I think Ian said he discovered there was a Slavic name Kragg.

It was never revealed what country Kragg came from, or even if he did come from another country.

Which was another part of the mystery. Maybe he was an alien! I’ve always wanted to play an alien!

Did the character of Frank Banner offer you more of a creative challenge as an actor?

I think Crawfords did the right thing in killing my wife off in the first episode of Division 4, because I had established myself as a loner in Hunter, and when they later started getting into the characters personal life I don’t think it was a success, I don’t think it worked. It would have been better, I felt, if they hadn’t explored that so much, but explored more of the interrelationships between Banner and the criminal world. They started that in the beginning, and I think that was successful, that was the way to go. Perhaps there was some confusion brought on by my request, because after a while that initial relationship started to dwindle, and it became more of a Cop Shop approach. When I made my appeals to Crawfords I think it was misunderstood - they believed that I felt I wasn’t being involved in that level, but what I was really after was going back to that earlier level.

Did you have any part in the decision making process of cancelling Hunter to make way for Division 4? You weren’t given the choice, for example, to continue on with Hunter and then move on to something else later?

No, no. They made the offer to me of course, but the idea was all theirs. I’ve never taken that sort of position in the industry. Mind you, there were those who would say that I could have if I were that sort of person, but I’ve never been into power or anything like that, or even of taking a high degree of charge of my own life. My philosophy is to relate to my environment as it wants to occur, and relate to that rather than make things happen. When I try to make things happen it tends not to work! Look at the appeals I made to Crawfords - that was an attempt to take charge of my life, but it didn’t work!

When Kragg became a goodie were you still happy playing him, or did you feel the character had been robbed of everything that made him interesting?

Oh no, I really enjoyed that interaction between the goodies and the baddies, because that was an extension of where I was coming from. I explored that also as the Banner character, of understanding where the crim was coming from but at the same time realising you were representative and protector of the public. The degree of success I managed that is not for me to say, but that was my aim if you like.

Did you prefer playing Banner to Kragg, or vice versa?

That’s very hard. People ask me what is my favourite character that I have played - it’s a very, very hard question. It’s a comparison of apples and oranges. I liked them both for different reasons.

In Hunter and Division 4 you were required to do your own stunts.

Ah yes! That was great, that was great.

It didn’t concern you at all?

Oh no. I found it exciting. I think this is where it comes from: at the age of seven I spent a year living on the premises of a theatre school, and all the traditions of ‘the show must go on’ and ‘the show is the all important thing’ got into my psyche, as a kind of conditioned reflex. You wouldn’t be allowed to do your own stunts today.

Like animating a dead shark while Tony fought with it!

Yes - underneath it, with these great jaws and my head almost inside them!

Why were you doing that particular stunt, which had nothing to do with your character?

I think I volunteered! I have an absolute phobia of sharks - absolute phobia. On another occasion for Hunter I was required to jump fully clothed, with boots on, into the water right between the Sydney Harbour heads - which is shark infested water. And there I was, standing on the bow of this boat thinking ‘How am I going to do this?’ But as soon as they said ‘Action!’ - something just snapped and in I went!

That could have been your last role!

It could have been! The director said I only had to swim 25 yards, well it actually ended up being 50 yards. And when I got to the fibreglass runabout, which was very rounded, I couldn’t get out of the water, and I was thinking ‘I won’t have any legs by the time I get in!’

Did you see any sharks while you were doing that?

No. They promised me that there would be some spear fishermen in the water. Then I was standing on the bow thinking ‘Where are these spear fishermen?!’ But that was a particularly insensitive director, who actually fired real bullets at us at one stage.

Tony said there was a director, whom he didn’t wish to name, who was firing bullets after you both as you were running up a stream.

Yes, it was the same director. We were doing the scene, and I was carrying this wounded fellow, and as we were going up the stream I saw these flicks in the water beside me, and I thought ‘That’s very effective! - I wonder how they’re doing that?’ As soon as they said ‘Cut!’ I looked over, and there he was emptying the rest of the bullets from the gun.

You took over the airport in Skyways.

I did that for 18 months, and again it was the business of ‘Oh yeah, we’ll put Gerard into this role, it will be good box office’. But I don’t think it worked. I don’t think that I was inherently good box office material in that kind of role.

I don’t think anything could have saved Skyways. There is only so much you can write about an airport.

Yes. And it was basically a soapie. I remember it was difficult to make work. I always had good scenes with Tina Bursill, they were good ‘conflict’ scenes, but that was all, it wasn’t enough to keep it interesting.

After Against The Wind, with ten million Logies on your mantelpiece, did you ever consider leaving television and only working in films?

No, although I always wanted to do film as well as television, and even though I grew up with that ‘theatre tradition’ thing, I was never satisfied with theatre. The screen offered a great deal more opportunity to suspend people’s belief system to a greater degree, with close-ups and all that sort of stuff, and the fact that you didn’t have projection techniques getting in the way of what might be a highly intimate low level thing. In fact, I think that was what Dorothy Crawford liked about my work, because she was always upset at the fact that stage actors would come in and be projecting, and that was one of the reasons she found my work attractive.

In the early Homicides some people were acting as if for the benefit of a bloke sitting in the back row of a hall.

Yeah, whereas I was trying to be as natural as possible. It’s a funny thing actually, nowadays there seems to be a movement in the other direction. American performances were over-the-top acting, and that seems to be the trend now in our productions, to try and go for more than is actually there in the script. That influence we associate with Americans - I mean, we see Americans in real life as over-acting! As a comparison, I’ve never been to Ireland, so my Irish characters have tended to be larger than life, but still trying to keep them within a region of believability.

Was your crew cut adopted for the Kragg role, or did you have one anyway?

I had a crew cut up in Queensland for a while, and then I let it grow. So when they asked me to have a crew cut again, the reason was that my hairline was so similar to Tony’s, and they wanted some kind of contrast.

And of course it carried on into Division 4 because there was no time to change it.

Yes - we were doing both shows at the same time for about three weeks. We were doing the video (interiors) for Hunter and the film (exteriors) for Division 4 in the one week for three weeks. I found that quite good, an interesting challenge, as part of the challenge of being an actor is playing many characters.

Did you find you were stereotyped as Banner?

Oh yes. You can’t help that sort of thing. Although when I look back I think I did fairly well, mind you I deliberately avoided playing policemen for some time. It’s only in more recent times that I’ve allowed myself to play a policeman. One part I played was Winchester, the police commissioner who was murdered - that was interesting to do. Playing actual people in history is very interesting.

Do any episodes of any of the series stand out as favourites - not necessarily because they were better than others, but simply because you liked them for any particular reason?

No, not really. It’s like the question before, making comparisons is very, very difficult. It’s more the characters, rather than just the episodes themselves. The Irish characters I always found to be interesting, and I found it really interesting playing the mad preacher in Mango Tree. I nearly got a part in an American film because of that role - it was to be a two-hander with Jack Palance. But I think it was a bad idea, because his gravelly voice and my gravelly voice together would have been a little bit too similar. But as it turned out he wasn’t able to do it.

Gravelly voices didn’t stop Tandarra and Raw Deal with yourself and Gus Mercurio.

No, but then Gus is probably even further down the gravelly track than Jack Palance!

In the last episode of Cash & Company you were brought in as Ryler, the bounty hunter who tracks down Cash and Brady, only to have that theme wrapped up in the first Tandarra episode. It’s like you did a ‘Kragg’ again, changing sides, this time going from bounty hunter to farmer.

That’s true. I never realised that actually. They did the same thing again.

Tandarra didn’t do as well as Cash, probably because it lost a lot of it’s intrigue - the theme of innocent fugitives from the law became adventures on the farm.

It was probably another reason why my ‘box office appeal’ waned gradually. Again, Ryler was low key. Homestead did try to remedy that in Raw Deal, but Raw Deal was a film that was misunderstood by the critics.

They married you off in your last episodes of Hunter, Division 4 and Tandarra.

And I got married in Skyways! I haven’t had a great deal of success as far as the romance side is concerned, I have never really felt comfortable playing romantic scenes. I think there is a reason for it, but it’s a bit personal, and I think it was a wise move as a result to always keep it as a potential rather than taking the mystique out of it - it’s always been more successful on the basis of something that doesn’t actually happen but might. It’s like violence, violence is much more effective if you don’t actually see it.

Being uncomfortable would have worked in Hunter with Kragg and Georgie Savage.

Oh yes, it worked in that case. And I think Crawfords were wise to follow that through.

Whereas in Division 4 with Margaret Stewart and Frank Banner it was always just simmering.

Exactly. When they gave Banner a girlfriend, played by Diane Craig, it didn’t really have any great impact. That potential was exposed, and it is no longer a mystery, it’s gone. Of course with a soapie you have to explore it, but Divvy 4 wasn’t a soapie.

Some of your scenes with Chuck Faulkner in Division 4 were very good.

Chuck was unbelievable at his ability to handle lengthy speeches and remember his lines. He was incredible! He was very good with words. There was another aspect of Division 4 that was somewhat ironical: years ago, before I was an actor, I applied to join the police force, and they knocked me back - but as Frank Banner I went on to become one of the most well-known policemen in Australia!

Looking back, despite any difficulties, did you enjoy your time with Crawfords?

Actually I feel privileged to have been a part of the exciting times in the historical development of the industry, and I feel quite nostalgic about working with those people, particularly in Division 4, for so many years. I certainly enjoyed working for Crawfords all those years, it was like the early Hollywood contract days, being a part of the Crawford "family".