Bob Ellis, prolific writer and former Labor speechwriter, dies aged 73
Ellis, who died in Sydney on Sunday afternoon, revealed last July he had aggressive liver cancer and feared then he had only weeks to live.
April 3, 2016
The writer and former political speechwriter Bob Ellis has died aged 73.
Ellis, who said in July he might have only weeks to live after tests delivered “very bad news” on his aggressive liver cancer, died on Sunday afternoon at his home in Sydney’s Palm Beach, the Independent Australia website reported.
Ellis’s wife, Anne Brooksbank, and their three children, Jack, Tom and Jennifer, were with him when he died, it said. Jack confirmed the writer’s death on the Table Talk blog, where Ellis had written extensively about his cancer as well as his usual commentary on politics and the arts.
“The [camaraderie] of his regular readers has been a source of tremendous joy to him these past few years,” he wrote. “Thank you all.”
A prolific author, journalist and screenwriter, Ellis wrote speeches for Labor leaders including Bob Carr, Paul Keating and Kim Beazley.He famously stood against Bronwyn Bishop in the seat of Mackellar in 1994.
The Labor leader Bill Shorten was among those who paid tribute on Twitter, saying Ellis was “a true believer with every fibre of his being”.
Shorten said in a statement Ellis “blessed Australia with more than four decades of brilliant phrases”.
“Bob’s writing moved people to tears and drove others to litigation. At every turn he confounded and delighted, he shocked and awed,” the statement said. “There was truly no such thing as a dispassionate Ellis piece. With Bob, it was always personal, it was always emotional, it was never dull.”
Bruce Hawker, the political strategist and former adviser to Kevin Rudd, called Ellis “a gifted troublemaker””. When Ellis’s illness was made public last year Hawker told Guardian Australia Ellis was “unique in Australian political commentary”.
Ellis was born in Lismore, in the far north of NSW in 1942, raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist and educated at Lismore High and Sydney University.
After university Ellis wrote for several Sydney newspapers, but it was as a theatre and film writer that he made his most important and enduring mark – starting with, in collaboration with the late Michael Boddy, The Legend Of King O’Malley in 1970.
Ellis has said the play marked the birth of an Australian style of theatre which mixed music, dance and satire. It also looked in a ferociously satirical way at Australian politics.
He went on to write 10 more plays, usually with a collaborator and most with musical and political elements.
He was even more prolific as a film and television script writer.
His first, Newsfront (1978), written with several others, including his wife, won an Australian Film Institute Award and boosted the careers of director Philip Noyce and actors Bryan Brown, Bill Hunter and Wendy Hughes.
“It ran for a year in Australia and changed everything,” Ellis said. “So for the second time, perhaps, I was not exactly pivotal, but instrumental, in the ignition of a new Australian revolution in the arts.”
He wrote numerous film and television scripts, including the 1992 feature film The Nostradamus Kid, an autobiographical story in which Noah Taylor played a young Ellis in pursuit of a young woman.
He also wrote Cactus, Man of Flowers and My First Wife with Paul Cox in the 1990s.
His television work included True Believers (1988) and Infamous Victory: Ben Chifley’s Battle for Coal (2008). He wrote six novels, most of them reworkings of films, and 13 volumes of non-fictions.
Ellis’s career suffered a grievous blow through the defamation action brought by Tony Abbott and former treasurer Peter Costello against his political book Goodbye Jerusalem (1997), which cost the publisher $277,000.
In 1994 he ran as an independent against Bishop – who was trying to move to the lower house – in a byelection for the seat of Mackellar. Ellis won more than 23% of the vote in the safe Liberal seat (Labor did not field a candidate), an achievement he said derailed Bishop’s leadership ambitions and therefore “caused the Howard era” and, in turn, Tony Abbott’s.
Ellis spared few big political figures a tongue-lashing over the years, including the current prime minister.
In one of his last blog posts, on 22 March, Ellis wrote of bad medical news that again gave him cause to think he had little time left, but hoped he would still be around for the federal election.
“There is a ‘mad dog’ thing about [Malcolm] Turnbull,” he wrote. “His need to be too clever by half. If I live till July 2 I may see the end of him.”
Tributes from the world of politics and journalism came thick and fast on social media.
The former South Australian premier Mike Rann said Ellis was “outrageous.
ELLIS, Bob (Robert James Ellis)
Born: 5/10/1942, Lismore, New South Wales, Australia
Died: 4/3/2016, Palm Beach, Sydney, New South Wales Australia
Bob Ellis’ westerns – writer:
Mad Dog Morgan – 1976 [novelization]
Bullseye – 1987 [additional dialogue]