Terry Norris: “I’ve had such a bloody, charmed life”
At the age of 88, one of Australia's oldest working actors has no plans to slow down.
Sitting in a Melbourne café waiting to speak to an industry veteran, I’m struck by the figure outside the window striding towards me.
It is actor Terry Norris, 88, who has a decided spring in his step as he heads for his latest press interview. I’ve asked to meet to discuss his body of work, the most recent of which is ABC’s Jack Irish. As I discover, there is much to discuss and no sign of slowing down.
“It’s been an interesting year for me,” Norris begins. “I turned 88 three weeks ago but at my age you can’t go hustling. This year I did Peter Jackson’s Mortal Engines in New Zealand which was very nice.
“Then I did a little bit in Romper Stomper, then Jack Irish and I’ve just finished another film, Judy & Punch. It was a lovely crew, lovely cast with Mia Wasikowska playing Judy, and Damon Herriman playing Punch. A very interesting script and written and directed by Mirrah Foulkes.
“It was a very adventurous film, almost like a gothic take on the Punch & Judy legend. It was a joy, a pleasure to go to work.”
Norris is one of Australia’s most experienced character actors. His CV includes Power Without Glory, Blue Heelers, Changi, Stingers, Something in the Air, City Homicide, Killing Time, Miss Fishers Murder Mysteries, The Society Murders, Hawke, The Damnation of Harvey McHugh, Ryan, Consider Your Verdict, Hunter, The Last of the Australians, and films including Stork, Road to Nhill, Paper Planes and The Dressmaker.
Work comes to him, as it rightly should after so many years, but as with most actors there is little pattern to it. At least that brings some spontaneity.
“You can sit around on your arse in this business and nothing happens and then suddenly you never know when the phone’s going to ring,” he explains.
“It’s something I suppose one could be cynical and I refuse to be. My main concern is that they’ve got the right address to send the money!
“I’ve had such a bloody, charmed life.”
“But other than that, I’ve had such a bloody, charmed life. It’s a terrible business that you wouldn’t want any of your children or your best friends ever to go into.”
Yet he has two daughters who did just that (one has since dropped out), and one son. Son-in-law Robert Connolly also happens to be the director of The Slap, Barracuda and Balibo.
Family is precious to Norris, who has 4 grandchildren with veteran actress wife, Julia Blake (Bed of Roses, Prisoner, Travelling North).
Melbourne-born Norris met British-born Blake in a theatre troupe after travelling to the UK as a young man.
“I went to England when I was 21 as one had to in those days. Nowadays it’s LA.
“The West End was one’s Mecca and so I went to England and I spent the next 12 years bumming around in repertory theatre. It was fantastic. Every town of every size had its own professional theatre. England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, even the bloody Channel Islands I played.
“We got married between a matinee & evening performance”
“We met in York, a lovely city, we were both in a company there. We got married between a matinee & evening performance of the show we were doing.
“A lot of performers you worked with in those days spent their entire lives in ‘rep’ and I didn’t want to finish up in a bloody bed sitting-room somewhere, down on my bean end, never going to get any further. We wanted to have a family so I persuaded Julia to come back to my hometown.”
They resettled in Melbourne in 1962 where Norris insists he enjoyed an enviable streak working in television, theatre, film and radio, including multiple guest roles on Crawford Productions.
“Hector had that great stable of shows: Homicide, Division 4, Matlock Police, The Sullivans (Norris was in all but the last).
“I was never, ever out of work.”
“I had 20 years with the longest run of luck of any actor on the face of the earth! I was never, ever out of work. Sometimes doing two and three at the same time, because in those days there were lots of bits and pieces,” he recalls.
“We did a radio play from Melbourne every week, so that was a little bit of jam on the bread, and at that same time you were doing a stage show or theatre restaurant, and two long-running soap operas. I did 20 years so bloody lucky, never out of work. It’s amazing. So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
In Bellbird he played mechanic Joe Turner, filmed at Ripponlea studios. After a day’s work he would jump on a train for evening performances at Tikki & John’s Theatre Restaurant or Brian Hannan’s Squizzy’s.
Bellbird was a big soap hit for ABC, with Noris enjoying an 8 year run and even leading a campaign to save the show from a timeslot & format change. He followed it as the memorable Senior Sgt. Eric O’Reilly on Seven’s hit police show, Cop Shop, providing levity to the crime of the week.
“It had comedy in it which is most unusual for a police show.”
“It was a show that never took itself seriously. It had comedy in it which is most unusual for a police show. Gill Tucker (Constable Roy Baker) and I were the comedy relief,” he smiles.
“They were a lovely, happy cast and another joy to go to work. I can never ever remember a moment in that show when anyone showed any temperament.”
In Cop Shop he played father to Claire, played by Louise Philip. She had also been a regular in Bellbird, prior to a life-changing accident.
Norris still remembers the day they were doing fan appearances in Wagga Wagga.
“When we finished the presentation at one of the big department stores someone rushed in to say Louise had just been in a terrible accident outside of town,” he recalls.
“I arrived at the Wagga Hospital in all my make-up as Joe Turner and just before I was about to go in and see her, one of the medical staff said ‘I’ve just told her, it’s a very serious accident. She’s broken her back and she’ll never walk again. Would you like to go in?’
“What do you say to a young kid and when you’re ushered into the room, she lying there having been told that she is going to be a paraplegic?”
Although he hasn’t seen her in many years, Norris says she became a shopping centre manager in Queensland. Remembering her fondly as “a lovely, lovely woman,” he admits to little contact with either Bellbird or Cop Shop cast, or any casts for that matter.
“You know what this business is like. You have lots of acquaintances, but very few, what I would call, friends,” he continues.
Mocking a showbiz ‘Hello darling!’ greeting he admits, “But we haven’t worked together for years?That’s why this is a strange business. You can sit in your room waiting for the phone to ring and you’re the loneliest person in the world, very isolated, very lonely, and get very depressed as many people in the business do.”
“When I’ve done something I don’t want to revisit it”
Although he lives within walking distance of ABC’s former Ripponlea studios, neither did he go to recent reunions and farewells.
“I’m the sort of person that when I’ve done something I don’t want to revisit it. I’ve never looked back. I don’t like seeing anything I’ve done, mainly because I think ‘Oh my God I think I could have done that better.’ You’re never satisfied with what you’ve done.
“I didn’t go to Ripponlea. I don’t like revisiting the memories. Isn’t it strange? It’s like class reunions. I’ve always been very reluctant.
“I want to remember it as it was. And when I die I wouldn’t want any service, other than the family, sitting around saying ‘Dad’s gone, blah blah blah.’ I’d want nothing else. I’m not a person that enjoys memorials or tributes.
“I always try to look ahead. You don’t look back. Consequently someone said ‘Have you seen The Dream Factory, you were in it a lot!’ I said, ‘I don’t particularly want to see it.’
“You ask me why, I couldn’t really tell you.
“I can understand people doing it because in a way it’s rather like having a good bowel movement. You feel a lot better for it. You’ve got it out of your system.
“I’ve got almost no close friends in the business”
“It’s possibly an odd aspect to me in that regard. I’m not one for revisiting and going back which is possibly why I’ve got almost no close friends in the business. Lots of acquaintances but no one I could sit down with and unburden myself.
“I’ve got a solitary person in that regard, as has Julia. So we are sort of peas in a pod.”
In 1982 he detoured from acting to a 10 year term as a member of the Victorian Labor government, which he says emerged from union work for Actors Equity. Representing voters in Dandenong, he describes it as “an experience,” if not necessarily enjoyable. But one that gave him insight into humanity.
“I had the biggest ethnic group in the state and the biggest unemployment and drug problem. It was challenging but nevertheless interesting. I worked my arse off and kindly (thanks) to the people I increased my vote at every election so I was doing something right.
“But you never get what you want, totally so you come to some sort of agreement. But it’s like life anyway, isn’t it?”
In his latest role for Jack Irish he is joined by veteran performer John Flaus as one of the barflies at the Prince of Prussia pub. This season, sadly, both are without their third partner in crime, the late Ronald Falk.
“Dear Ron,” he smiles. “In this particular series we’re almost auditioning someone to take Ron’s stool right at the bar.
“It’s a beautiful cast, led by one of the greatest professionals I have ever worked with, Guy Pearce. What a pro. Delightful person, lovely actor. Walks on the set, knows his lines -and he has an enormous work load. Scene after scene after scene .
“Guy is a joy, no hassle, no problems. Charming.
“So that sets the tone I think, for the atmosphere.
“We’ve struck a chord with a lot of viewers.”
“We’ve struck a chord with a lot of viewers. Oddly enough, they represent an era that’s gone. These old Australian types sitting in a bar -not a lot of them left. It has just struck a chord with many viewers who come up and say ‘I know that bar.’
“It’s fun to go to work. All John I’ve got to do is sit there and say the words!”
But while he has two feature films yet to be released, Norris admits he doesn’t know what his next job will be. Yet neither does it seem to faze him. It’s all part of the tapestry.
“I must be one of the oldest actors still working.”
“You wait for the next phone call,” he adds pragmatically. “I must be one of the oldest actors still working.
“They’re all sort of dying off, poor bastards, or retiring.”
And yet while he is indeed one of Australia’s oldest working performers, Norris resists overselling his achievements, preferring to let the work speak for itself.
“Noel Coward’s autobiography, after his great body of work, was called ‘A Talent to Amuse,’ which is a sort of how most of my life has been,” he insists.
“I call myself a ‘jobbing actor.’ I’ll do a reasonably professional job, and I’ve been lucky enough to make a living from it.”
Jack Irish airs 8:30pm Sundays on ABC.