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Hargreaves, John William (1945–1996)

by Ken Healey

This article was published online in 2022

John William Hargreaves (1945–1996), actor, was born on 28 November 1945 at Kogarah, Sydney, eldest of three children of New South Wales-born parents William James Hargreaves, welder, and his wife Mary Isabel, née Worley. John grew up in the St George area, and attended Marist Brothers’ Boys’ School, Kogarah. Winning a scholarship, he trained at Wagga Wagga Teachers’ College, and aged nineteen was teaching in the mid-western town of Mendooran. After moving to Sydney, he taught at Crows Nest Boys’ High School, and acted in two productions at the New Theatre.

In 1969 Hargreaves joined the two-year acting course at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. He was soon turning heads. Tony Llewellyn-Jones, a contemporary student, said of Hargreaves and his classmate and close friend Wendy Hughes, ‘They were royalty’ (2015). NIDA staff did not share his enthusiasm. ‘Great talent,’ recalled the director John Clark, ‘but the voice and acting teachers considered him lazy’ (2015). Clark added that NIDA’s main attraction for Hargreaves was the expectation of a year’s work at the Old Tote Theatre Company after graduation. Hargreaves graduated in 1970 and proved the worth of such a career strategy: he won a contract with that company. In 1970 John Bell cast him in the title role of Biggles at the new Nimrod Theatre. The timing was impeccable, as the New Wave in Australian theatre and screen was breaking.

Hargreaves was to acknowledge John Meillon as his mentor in acting for the screen. Guest roles in popular television series, mainly produced by Crawford Productions Pty Ltd and the Australian Broadcasting Commission, occupied his journeyman years, together with several stage roles. Then he was cast as the young policeman in the 1975 film of David Williamson’s play The Removalists. The role required Hargreaves to express some of the traits later associated with other characters he played on screen: among them, an awkwardness in trying to cover obvious shortcomings with charm and, often, a basic Australian decency. These characters are unheroic, even anti-heroic. As the film critic Paul Byrnes wrote in 1987, ‘in all his best roles he has played failures’ (1987, 36).

The seven awards Hargreaves won for best actor or best supporting actor do not constitute the peaks of his achievements. Another honour, however, the Australian Film Institute Byron Kennedy award for excellence in the film industry in 1994, was a high point. Fittingly, a number of his winning performances happened to be in films worth remembering: Careful, He Might Hear You (1983), My First Wife (1984), and Malcolm (1986). Among his unawarded triumphs were performances in Scales of Justice and The Dismissal, both for television in 1983, and his valedictory film roles, Country Life (1994) and Hotel Sorrento (1995).

George Miller, who directed the first segment of The Dismissal for television, told the most revealing story about Hargreaves the actor and the man. Governor-General Sir John Kerr had dismissed the Whitlam government on 11 November 1975. Hargreaves was cast as Jim Cairns, who had been treasurer and deputy prime minister under Whitlam in 1974 and 1975. In rehearsal Hargreaves quickly became the leader, intellectually and in detailed research. Miller ‘dreaded’ the actual filming, worried that Hargreaves’s exactingness would cause delays. But ‘when the cameras rolled, Johnny effortlessly and with complete grace became Jim Cairns’; he ‘taught me the difference between preparation and performance’ (Miller 1996, 14).

Hargreaves had a lengthy preparation for his final act: his acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)-related death. Although unaware for some time, he had contracted the human immunodeficiency virus in 1984. He endured his ‘first AIDS defining illness’ (Watts and Picot 2000, 279) about 1992. Boldly heterosexual as a young man, he had realised and acknowledged his homosexuality in the early 1980s. Between 1984 and 1988 he lived in and near Paris with his French partner, Vincent Perrot. He worked intermittently as an actor, returning to Sydney to film Emerald City (1988) after the relationship had ended.

A playful man with a ‘booming laugh’ (Williams 1996, 13), Hargreaves issued a challenge to anyone attempting to tell his life story. Told about detailed preparation for the book later published as John Hargreaves … a Celebration (2000), he retorted that it was ‘all bullshit.’ ‘It isn’t all bullshit, of course,’ wrote Tony Watts, one of the book’s compilers, ‘but be warned! His quoted remarks … often contain contradictions from one article to another. Whether that’s journalists or John … I suspect more the latter’ (1994). Consistency and precision of detail are not essential to the book’s depiction of his spirit; rather the volume celebrates the elusive ‘Truth’ that actors seek on stage and screen. He died on 8 January 1996 at Darlinghurst, and after a funeral at St Canice’s Catholic Church, Elizabeth Bay, was buried in the Protestant section of Woronora cemetery, Sutherland, reputedly because the Catholic section was full. At the wake, actor Bryan Brown captured Hargreaves’s spirit: ‘Jeeze, they might as well shoot us all now. How can we better that act?’ (Oram 1996, 14).

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Byrnes, Paul. ‘John Hargreaves Unmasked.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 18–19 September 1987, Good Weekend 36–42
  • Clark, John. Interview by the author, 7 July 2015
  • Craig, Julie. Interview by the author, 6 August 2015
  • Llewellyn-Jones, Tony. Interview by the author, 12 November 2015
  • Miller, George. ‘Actor’s Formula: Brilliance, Fierce Preparation, Abandon.’ Age (Melbourne), 12 January 1996, 14
  • Oram, James. ‘Life Was John’s Party.’ Sun-Herald (Sydney), 14 January 1996, 14–15
  • Watts, Tony, and Genevieve Picot, compilers. John Hargreaves … a Celebration: An Actor’s Life as He Saw It. Australia: Parrot Management, 2000
  • Watts, Tony. Letter to Evan Williams, 21 November 1994. Copy held by the author
  • Williams, Evan. ‘Actor Portrayed Definitive Aussie.’ Australian, 9 January 1996, 13

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ken Healey, 'Hargreaves, John William (1945–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hargreaves-john-william-31765/text39225, published online 2022, accessed online 30 November 2022.

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