Aboriginal author, activist, actor and more, Jack Charles.
Aboriginal author, activist, actor and more, Jack Charles. James Henry

Jack Charles: Living with no excuses, no regrets

THE stage is set, the lights are dimmed and the audience is anticipating an enlightening encounter with renowned Australian actor Jack Charles.

He doesn't disappoint.

The Aboriginal elder, who has spent his life searching for his stolen identity, has offered a glimpse of his extraordinary life, revealing the lows and highs of his journey, in his book, Jack Charles: Born-again Blakfella.

In this memoir, Charles is brutally honest about where the fault lies, while retaining his cheeky take on many encounters.

Removed from his mother's arms at four months under the White Australia Policy and taken to the Salvation Army's Box Hill Boys Home, in 70-odd years Charles has done more damage and good in life than almost imaginable in his quest to answer the question of where he came from.

"I was confounded by my heritage right from the get-go at the Box Hill Boys Home," he said.

Charles was a bright student who learned to read and write, memorise and recite works, and mimic radio voices, which helped him develop his acting voice.

He also experienced ongoing sexual abuse, like many of the other boys in the home.

There was a brief moment when Charles thought he met one of his siblings, Artie, but the brothers put a stop to him finding out more.

Denied the right to connect with "blood kin" and turfed out on the streets in his mid-teens, Charles gained work skills, both legal and illegal.

"I believe that I was easily conned as a young fellow by my fellow comrades from the Box Hill Boys Home who were living around Auburn at the same time," he said. "They were in a Salvation Army hostel."

He remembers his boss bailing him out of Turana reception centre to get him back to work, and putting him in a gentlemen's residence in Glenferrie.

"So, I was mixing with the crowd from the home and many of them were already on a life of crime," Charles said.

"One of them convinced me to go with him and we robbed a supermarket in Hawthorne. That was my first crime. I was easily led; a young, impressionable child, not knowing anything.

"They were my first and foremost siblings I thought," he added.

"I ran amok with them, while at the same time staying on this journey of discovering who I was."

Homelessness, burglaries and drugs became an integral part of his life. And so did acting.

He has appeared in many plays and Australian movies including The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Bedevil, Blackfellas and the international film Pan.

But throughout all that, Charles still searched for his family connections.

He was delighted to finally find out his mother was still alive and living in a humpie in a "blakfella camp" in NSW, and that he had several living siblings.

"She was well respected and even called a sergeant," he said. But, there was also a dark story around her that has stayed with him well after his mother died.

Charles is unapologetic about the crimes he committed, leading to 22 incarcerations, and for his heroin addiction.

"I have outed myself and admitted to my crimes," he said.

"I remember clearing up the police books and they did suggest: 'Jack, I think you are admitting to too many more crimes than we envisaged. Instead of 700 we will charge you for 75. Is that okay?'."

Undertaking the *Marumali Program at Loddon Prison, near the completion of his last prison sentence in 2008, proved a final turning point for Charles.

"Those weeks of undertaking that journey of discovering the missing link in our lives, the missing denied heritage, really got many of us at those sessions pretty upset," he said.

"It was the catalyst that relit the burning embers of my life: my drugged up, grogged up, mucked up dreamings."

Some of his confronting story has already been shared through the film Bastardy and in the play Jack Charles vs The Crown. He used the play as a chance to apologise to all from whom he had stolen and who he had disappointed.

Has he finally found himself?

"I am pretty happy now," Charles said. "Through the Koorie Heritage Trust and Link-Up, I have discovered who I am now.

"I won't be around forever so the idea was to write a memoir, my ideas and to share it with Australians.

"I am 76 this year and I have been leaving a number of legacies in one form or another. The book just tops it off. I do intend to write further insights, sharing the journey of jumping off the methadone for instance."

Now an Aboriginal elder, Victorian Senior of the Year and recipient of the Red Ochre Award for Lifetime Achievement, Charles is using his "fine sense of com-artistry" to drive changes in the future of the younger generations as he enthusiastically continues his volunteer community leadership work.

He's still on stage, recently completing the last of the ABC's Black Comedy series, and is booked for the Te Rēhia Theatre play Black Ties.

Charles plans to keep acting as long as he keeps getting asked.

"I never audition; I am too far up myself to audition and I fear rejection. I am only a little fellow," he said cheekily.

Jack Charles: Born-again Blakfella is in bookshops now.