This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996
John William Pilbean Goffage (1909-1971), actor, was born on 26 March 1909 at Broken Hill, New South Wales, son of John Goffage, an agent from England, and his native-born wife Violet Maud Edyth, née Joyce. Nicknamed 'Chips' by his schoolmates, he was educated in country towns and at Parramatta Intermediate Boys' High School. He learned to ride and to box, and developed a lifelong love of painting. Apprenticed as an ironmoulder at the Clyde Engineering Co. Ltd, Sydney, he left to roam through the eastern Australian bush as a drover, shearer and boundary rider; he later worked as a deckhand in coastal boats and as an assistant in a Sydney wine cellar. He sold poems and stories to newspapers and magazines, and the occasional water-colour painting. At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Macquarie Street, on 16 November 1935 he married Colina Jean Stewart Ferguson, a 19-year-old dental nurse; they ran an ice-cream parlour before they were divorced in March 1941.
With his thin build and height of 6 ft 6 ins (198 cm), and an irreverent sense of humour, Goffage first entered show business as a magician's assistant, then was hired as an extra in a film, Come up Smiling (1939), produced in Sydney. He attracted attention in a small role as a gangling member of a slapstick bushfire-fighting team in Dad Rudd, M.P. (1940), and was promptly cast as the comic lead in Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940), Charles Chauvel's much-publicized tribute to the Australian Light Horse in the Sinai desert campaign of World War I. An outstanding commercial success at home, the film screened favourably in Britain and the United States of America, bringing 'Chips Rafferty' (the screen-name Goffage adopted) instant fame in Australia.
On 28 May 1941 at the registrar general's office, Sydney, Goffage married Ellen Kathleen Jameson, a 37-year-old dressmaker. Known as 'Quentin', she was to be his close and constant companion until her death on 27 May 1964. They had no children. On 29 May 1941 Goffage had enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. He was amiable, unaffected and popular with the airmen. Commissioned in the Administrative and Special Duties Branch in April 1943, he performed welfare and entertainment duties in Australia and New Guinea. On secondment, he acted in several Australian propaganda films for the Department of Information, including South West Pacific (1943), and in a second feature film for Chauvel, The Rats of Tobruk (1944), in which he again played one of the leading roles, this time as a member of the A.I.F. in North Africa. He was demobilized with the rank of flying officer on 13 February 1945.
Rafferty's first postwar film, The Overlanders (1946), marked a turning-point in his career. He was cast by British director Harry Watt in the role of a bushman who headed a team which drove a vast herd of cattle across northern Australia beyond the reach of possible Japanese invaders. With a brilliant background in documentary, Watt was determined to create authentic Australian characters in his factually based drama. Under his perceptive and disciplined direction, Rafferty moulded the character of the tough, laconic Australian bushman which he continued to play, with minor variations, for the rest of his life, both in public and on screen. Following a postwar decline in local production, Rafferty took numerous roles in British and American films made on location in Australia, most notably Bitter Springs (1950), Kangaroo (1952), Smiley (1956) and The Sundowners (1960). Like many Australian actors, he went overseas to find work; he was given parts in The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947), The Desert Rats (1953) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).
In 1952 Rafferty had joined an Australian documentary film-maker, Lee Robinson, to produce a totally local film, The Phantom Stockman (1953), a 'Western' with Rafferty in his standard bushman role. Although crudely produced, the film was profitable, and Rafferty and Robinson formalized their partnership in a company, Southern International; they developed an ambitious production programme for film and television designed to revitalize the ailing local industry. After King of the Coral Sea (1954), directed by Robinson and starring Rafferty as a Torres Strait pearl fisherman, Southern International secured French finance for three films, among them Walk into Paradise (1956) with Rafferty as a New Guinea patrol officer.
He was also active in the administration of the company's projects and in selling the completed films. An outspoken advocate of government support for the film and television industries in Australia from the 1950s, he was a man of strong opinions, strongly expressed, and a Freemason. Not only did he risk personal resources in Southern International, but he used his considerable public image to take a patriarchal role in the local film community. Despite his efforts, his film company foundered and ceased production in 1959. He continued to work as an actor at home and abroad in films such as They're a Weird Mob (1966) and Double Trouble (1967) with Elvis Presley. He also made numerous guest appearances on Australian television, in variety shows, in Australian series like 'Skippy' (1970), and in American series which included 'The Wackiest Ship in the Army' (1967) and 'Tarzan' (1969). In 1971 he gave one of his finest performances—and his last in a feature film—as an outback policeman in Wake in Fright. Chips died suddenly of lung disease and heart failure on 27 May that year at Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, and was cremated with Anglican rites.
As an actor, Rafferty owed much to a tradition of comedy going back to Pat Hanna and his series of 'Diggers' stage shows in the 1920s. After his screen character was remodelled by Watt in The Overlanders, Rafferty abandoned broad comedy and emerged as a stereotype of the Australian outback male, becoming identified with the character more thoroughly than any other actor of his generation. To the film critic of the Sydney Morning Herald (30 September 1946), he was 'the Australian Everyman, in speech, action and character'. For the postwar generation he symbolized essential Australian qualities, and was both honoured (M.B.E., 1971) and reviled for his association with heavy drinking and cultural crudity.
A. F. Pike, 'Goffage, John William Pilbean (1909–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/goffage-john-william-pilbean-10317/text18259, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 27 May 2015.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996