Actor Tony Bonner AM
Actor Tony Bonner AM Tracey Johnstone

International actor Tony Bonner connected closely to home

TONY Bonner is sitting on a bench on the balcony of his beloved Manly Life Saving Club. In the background the ocean waves crash. A group of novice surfboard riders tentatively head out under the watchful eye of an instructor. The Norfolk Pines sway in the gentle breeze. Horns honk, running bare feet slap on the pathway below. All is seemingly very everyday.

For this internationally recognised actor, it's his normal. It's his safety zone. There, he is king of the club - immediate past-president for the fourth time, newly minted Life Member, grandson of the first club president, and still active patrol man. It's where he comes every day he is at home, to do something, anything to help the club, and to keep himself busy.

Over fifty years of acting, directing, singing, dancing, coaching, teaching and mentoring isn't enough. Bonner is still looking for happiness in his life.

He has travelled the world, worked alongside the likes of Kirk Douglas, Roger Moore, Tom Selleck, Tony Curtis and Paul Hogan. He will also be forever remembered for stint as the helicopter pilot in the iconic Australian television series Skippy which went to air 50 years ago this year.

Some readers will remember when Cosmopolitan boldly launched its male centrefold series in 1972 with Burt Reynolds in America and then Bonner in Australia. "I thought it was great and always have," Bonner said

Tony Bonner was the first Australian centrefold for the Cosmopolitan magazine, published in 1972.
Tony Bonner was the first Australian centrefold for the Cosmopolitan magazine, published in 1972.

Last year's awarding of an Australian Medal remains one of his Bonner's fondest life moments. He has received many peer awards, but to also be recognised publicly for his entertainment industry roles, along with his contribution to lifesaving and to several high-profile charities; there has been nothing more precious to him.

Bonner's most recent work was as a feature actor in the Australian crime thriller film Landfall which is due in cinemas this month.

Unlike America, Bonner says there are less and less roles in Australia open to veteran actors.

"Once you hit 50 you kind of start to become invisible," Bonner said. 

That's when women and men who have had life experiences in the work they have been doing, should be the first to be snapped up for employment, but idiot firms will hire some 25-year-old because he has a degree from some university ahead of someone who is 50 and knows what he is doing.

Actors Tony Bonner and Shawn Brack in Travis Bain's new thriller movie, Landfall, filmed at Mission Beach and in cinemas from this month.
Actors Tony Bonner and Shawn Brack in Travis Bain's new thriller movie, Landfall, filmed at Mission Beach and in cinemas from this month.

But for Bonner, he has two more films "in the air", awarded writer and journalist Matthew Condon is working on Bonner's biography and Katie Rae is painting his portrait for next year's Archibald Prize.

Even with all that to Bonner's credit, it just seems that still isn't enough.

Bonner's slight tilt of the head to the left and a gentle creasing of the brow introduces the intense side of the still very handsome, single, 75-year-old.

That intensity is a product of his tempestuous life journey and its outcomes.

Bonner ran away from a violent home scene just after he had turned 14. "I caught a daylight train to Melbourne, rented a little room in east Melbourne, and started," Bonner said.

He battled alcoholism from the age of 14 through to 46. Bonner still can't believe that he is not only alive after consuming serious amounts of booze during that time, but also was able to drag himself out of the mire and stay out. Bonner was warned that he would never see his three daughters grow up and he would kill himself or be killed by his reckless motorcycle antics and fights.

"I danced with the devil back then," Bonner added.

He put down the booze and the cigarettes, once and for all. His work improved. His relationships improved. "It's only been pluses," Bonner said.

Next year Bonner will proudly mark 30 years of staying dry. "If there is such a thing as miracles in the life, and I believe there is, I am one," he said.

About 14 years ago he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. "The worst part of it isn't when you are told you have something," Bonner said. "The most difficult part of that journey is when the oncologist sends you off to have tests. The second time you go back to see the doctor is the big one as you know you already have it, but then you have to hear how bad it is and if it has spread." Bonner has since then mentored both men diagnosed with the disease and their partners about the experience, reminding them, "your life is more important that your erection".

This is a man who believes he has never run from the truth and never run from a fight. But, when asked to play a character who is happy, one who has no fear of who is standing behind him - it's not him. Instead, Bonner instinctively looks for the escape route before he turns to his experiences to channel the required warmth and confidence needed for that character. "I have been in a battle field most of my life," Bonner said.

So, will he know when he has found his happiness? "I don't know; I'm sure there will be a feeling that says to me, this is what you have missed all your life," he said.

A slight lowering of the direct gaze. His tense shoulders ease ever so slightly. The corners of his mouth give way to a gentle, loving smile. The pall over Bonner's life lifts as he talks about his family; his greatest personal pride.

Actor Tony Bonner AM outside Parliament House where he was awarded the national honour this year.
Actor Tony Bonner AM outside Parliament House where he was awarded the national honour this year.

Bonner's continuing strong relationship with his ex-wife, Nola Clark, and enduring connection with his three daughters and their children are what he says have kept him alive.

Living long enough to become a great-grandfather is absolutely at the top of Bonner's list for the future.

"To even say that from someone who didn't think he would get past the age of 20 because of the way I was living; for me to still be here at 75 and to think, holy crap, there is a distinct possibility you are going to be a great-grandfather; to me it's nearly incomprehensible," he said.

Bonner started the day with a swim in the ocean at first light and a soft-sand jog before preparing himself for the day ahead whether it's acting, directing, coaching or giving. By the end of the day he has turned his mind to hosting a fundraising function the surf club with some German tourists, before heading off to coach aspiring actors and continue his charity work for The Smith Family, Bravehearts, the Variety Club and the Wesley Mission suicide prevention program.

"It's in my nature," he said. "I have been blessed to have been in a battle and knocked around a bit, and survived. I get great pleasure if I can be of assistance to someone; if I can put a hand out, then I am really blessed to be able to do that."

Acting credits

Tony Bonner has appeared in many films and television shows - Skippy, Cop Shop, Homicide, Skyways, Hawaii Five-O, The Box, Matlock Police, Carson's Law, Division 4, Rockford Files and Neighbours.

He acted in Annie Get YourGun and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and directed the stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Some of his better-known films are - Liquid bridge (1973 - he was nominated for AFI award for best supporting actor), The adventures of young Indiana jones - daredevils of the desert (1999), Quigley Downunder (1991), The Lighthorsemen (1988), Anzacs - the war down under (1985), The man from snowy river (1982), End of summer (1978 - he won a Sammy & Penguin for best single performance by an actor), The mango tree (1977), Power without glory (1976), The persuaders (1972), They're a weird mob (1966).


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