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Francis William (Frank) Thring (1926–1994)

by Peter Fitzpatrick

This article was published:

Frank Thring, by Rennie Ellis, 1992 [detail]

Frank Thring, by Rennie Ellis, 1992 [detail]

State Library of Victoria, 49300371

Francis William Thring (1926–1994), actor, was born on 11 May 1926 at Armadale, Victoria, only child of New South Wales-born Francis William Thring, film and theatre entrepreneur, and his locally born second wife Olive, née Kreitmayer. As a boy Frank junior appeared briefly in two features—Diggers (1931) and The Sentimental Bloke (1932)—by his father’s company, Efftee Film Productions. His brilliant career was assumed, by his mother at least, from that point.

The Thrings were conspicuously rich, and young Frank travelled to Glamorgan Preparatory School for Boys (1933–38) and Melbourne Church of England Grammar School (1939–41) in the family’s chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. He loathed MCEGS, and left at fifteen having failed to gain his Intermediate certificate; he later studied for it at Taylor’s Coaching College but was again unsuccessful. After his father’s death in July 1936, Frank accompanied his socialite mother on the Melbourne cocktail circuit. His was a very peculiar childhood, and explains something of his sense of himself as an outsider, and, perhaps, his hostility to Olive in later life.

Thring enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force with effect from 5 March 1945 but was discharged on medical grounds six weeks later. It was rumoured that his mother had argued for his release because of a hammer toe on his left foot. His early acting had been in radio drama on 3XY, the station that his father had acquired for Efftee. He quickly moved into amateur theatre, where his larger-than-life presence won him big roles and a reputation for precocious talent. After touring professionally with visiting British companies, he established (1951) the Arrow Theatre in Middle Park. At the Arrow he directed, designed, and starred in more than twenty plays, all lavishly supported by his doting mother.

In 1954 Thring took his production of Salome to London, where his performance as Herod won some notices that were almost as good as he claimed. A year later he returned to England after being cast as Saturninus in the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company’s staging of Titus Andronicus. Joan Edith Grace Cunliffe, a telephonist whom he had met at 3XY, accompanied him. He was now established as an imposing stage villain, and he brought his distinctive line in sybaritic viciousness to the screen in a series of Hollywood film spectaculars: The Vikings (1958), Ben-Hur (1959), King of Kings (1961), and El Cid (1961). Tyrants in togas became his stock in trade.

Thring’s early acting style was an anachronism. The roles he played as a young man were those normally associated with grand old men of British theatre. A distinctive drawling delivery, a vaguely lascivious lisp, and a penchant for the extended pause meant that the actor’s personality rarely disappeared within the character. On 21 November 1955 he and Joan married at the Stratford-upon-Avon parish church; Sir Laurence (Baron) Olivier gave the bride away and Vivien Leigh was matron of honour. Their marriage was dissolved in 1957 on grounds of non-consummation. Thring told typically outrageous stories about the circumstances, though Joan was adamant that it was a marriage for love. Certainly the humiliating details of his divorce lay behind his retreat from London, as well as the self-mocking myths he devised to conceal them. In 1961 he returned to Melbourne. He resumed residence at Rylands, the family mansion, and became a familiar figure on the Melbourne professional stage, especially with the Union Theatre Repertory Company (later Melbourne Theatre Company). Over thirty years he played in thirty-five of their productions, as well as touring occasionally with more commercial projects.

From the late 1960s Thring’s flamboyant and acerbic persona won him a celebrity beyond the stage. He was a regular anarchic presence on television variety shows, and made several self-parodic advertisements. Although he flaunted his homosexuality, he was regarded affectionately by the apparently insular and conservative community in which he lived; his anointment as ‘King’ of the 1982 Moomba Festival confirmed his popularity. He dominated public situations as much by his imposing physique and distinctive appearance—the shaved head, all-black outfit, and profusion of baubles—as by his witheringly sardonic humour. His large and gregarious presence, however, concealed an intensely private man. He had a number of relationships with young men, but none lasted long. His essential solitariness, fed by his addiction to alcohol and other sedatives, made him an increasingly reclusive figure.

As Thring’s health and memory deteriorated, his roles were increasingly scene-stealing cameos, or small roles in low-budget Australian films. These included Alvin Rides Again (1974), Mad Dog Morgan (1976), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). His finances depleted, he later moved to a cottage in Fitzroy. He died in the Epworth Hospital, Richmond, on 29 December 1994, from cancer of the oesophagus, the same disease that had killed his father. It was the last twist in an ironic plot based on Thring’s ambivalent attitudes to his theatrical inheritance. He was cremated and his ashes scattered off the coast of Queenscliff. A tribute was held at the Victorian Arts Centre in March 1995. His estate endowed the Frank Thring scholarship at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, Sydney.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Adams, Phillip. ‘Frankly Sssspeaking.’ Weekend Australian, 21–22 January 1995, Weekend Review 2
  • Burchall, Greg. ‘Farewell to Thring—a Memorable Scene-Stealer.’ Age (Melbourne), 6 March 1995, 7
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter. The Two Frank Thrings. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2012
  • National Archives of Australia. A9301, 159658
  • Plant, Simon. ‘Frankly, the Legend Lives.’ Herald Sun, 4 March 1995, 29
  • Roccheccioli, Roland. ‘Actor with a Presence Bigger than Ben-Hur.’ Australian, 2 January 1995, 12
  • Sumner, John. Recollections at Play: A Life in Australian Theatre. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1993
  • Thring, Frank, and Roland Roccheccioli. The Actor Who Laughed. Melbourne: Hutchinson of Australia, 1985

Additional Resources

Citation details

Peter Fitzpatrick, 'Thring, Francis William (Frank) (1926–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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