Remembering Errol O’Neill

errol2From the eulogy by Mary Kelly


Errol was born on 8 March 1945 at Old Cleveland Rd Coorparoo. His parents -Francis Patrick O’Neill (called Frank or Bluey), and Gladys May Lutvey (whose parents were Lebanese migrants) – already had two boys – Dan then 7, and Michael then 2. Errol was to be the last – the youngest of the three O’Neill brothers. The family had moved from Gayndah to Brisbane a few years previously, first living at the Stones Corner shop with Gladdy’s three sisters Mona, Mary and Rose, and later settling in Nicklin Street.  ‘Bluey’ was a taxi driver and they lived the typical Catholic working-class family life of the 1950s with a focus on church, family and the practicalities of making ends meet. His schooling was at St James’s Primary School Coorparoo and Villanova College.

In 1968, he  studied philosophy and theology at the Gregorian University, Rome, before deciding the priesthood was not for him. Returning to Brisbane, he studied an Arts Degree at the University of Queensland (majoring in English Language and Literature) and began seriously to develop his skills in writing and acting, and just as seriously to involve himself in the issues and politics of Queensland.

By the time he finished his degree, Errol had been deeply involved in a number of revues at the University, honing his satirical writing and acting skills; had been summonsed to court for his refusal to register for national service and thus be drafted into the Vietnam war; had been in many demonstrations and protests; and had experienced his first main stage acting role at the Queensland Theatre Company.

For the next 40 or more years he pursued these themes and threads, successfully forging a career in a notoriously difficult industry, and doing so with a steadfast focus on politics and social change. (Perhaps this focus and this pursuit was assisted by the fact that he was sacked from his first ever job in the public service after 2 weeks because of his Special Branch record.)

Later it would be taxi-driving, just like his father had done, which would fill the gaps between theatre jobs, and again his sharp observational skills meant these experiences became short stories about the characters and situations he came across. Errol could take a minute exchange and weave it into something funny and tragic, and he performed his taxi stories by reading aloud many times over the years.

From 1977 to 1982, he was a performer and then writer-director with the Popular Theatre Troupe, a Brisbane-based company specialising in political satire.

After his stint in the Troupe, he was essentially free-lance for the rest of his working life during which he wrote more than a dozen plays on aspects of Australian society, politics and history which were produced by main stage companies in Brisbane and interstate; acted in nearly 20 films and a dozen television series; performed in numerous training films and corporate videos, radio plays, voice-overs and narrations; directed a number of productions; and acted in well over 50 plays. He also wrote short stories and other prose.

For someone who had so many run-ins with the law, he played a surprisingly large number of policeman roles – from the unrecognisably aggressive Sergeant Simmonds in ‘The Removalists’ to the more affable Len in ‘East of Everything’.

In the quest for work, Errol was entrepreneurial and relentless. With friends, he started a new theatre company – the Brisbane Theatre Company – and later in life the collective called ‘The Forgetting of Wisdom’ to help generate opportunities to perform.

He also involved himself in organisations dedicated to improving the performing arts industry such as the Australia Council, the Writers’ Guild, the Literature Board, and his union Actors’ Equity. A centenary medal in 2003 and the Alan Edwards Lifetime Achievement award in the same year were public acknowledgement of his contribution.



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