The importance of the arts

Renowned actor, artist and musician, Geoff Morrell awarded Honorary Doctorate

Geoff Morrell’s career is rare. He is among a small cohort of actors to make a career almost exclusively on the Australian screen, with more than 80 screen credits to his name.

“I encourage you to believe that a life and career as an artist is possible. That the arts and artists are important. Maybe even necessary, for the functioning of a healthy culture.” 

Today (Wednesday 17 April) in recognition of his exceptional career, his unwavering commitment to the arts and his deep connection to the University, Geoff Morrell received a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) from the University of Wollongong (UOW).

With a distinguished career spanning over 45 years, he has transformed into numerous unique and unforgettable characters, captivating audiences both in Australia and overseas.

Geoff has simultaneously made his name as a renowned international artist making and exhibiting for more than 30 years and a self-taught musician who frequently plays in his band Thieves’ Oil with long-time collaborator and fellow actor David Field.

Early years in Wollongong

Geoff was born in Fairfield in Western Sydney, back when the landscape was covered in small farms.

“My dad was a schoolteacher who did his country service in Western Sydney. He then ended up as a subject master at Oak Flats High,” Geoff said.

“We came to live in Wollongong when I was nine, and I have been here on and off ever since.”

Wollongong was the starting point for most of Geoff’s creative pursuits, starting school, university and acting in the Illawarra.

“I repeated high school in year 12 (sixth form in those days). I just didn't bother the first time. I was working at the Port Kembla Steelworks but went and asked my parents if they would let me go back to school. I did and ended up topping the HSC, because I put in the work.” 

Geoff secured a NSW Teacher’s Scholarship and pursued a Bachelor of Arts through UOW.

“It was an unbonded scholarship because there was an oversupply of teachers, so I didn't have to fulfill any requirements and have to teach.

“Midway through the degree I discovered the Drama Society, acting and theatre. Leading to a career which has sustained me my whole life.”

While studying he made his stage debut at UOW as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Geoff remembers his days at UOW fondly, back when it was Wollongong College, with a strong social circle, a diverse mix of people, and a thriving live music scene.

“They were great times. The college was really small, you got to socialise with your lecturers. The uni bar was a focus. I loved the collegiate nature of it.”

He was President of the Student Representative Council for a time.

“I don't know why, but someone said, ‘We're protesting against the duck pond’, so we laid in front of the bulldozer that was set to gouge out the hole for the pond. We made the front page of the Illawarra Mercury, for our commitment to protesting the creation of the duck pond.

“I walk around the campus occasionally now, and I look at it and think the pond is pretty good.”

Geoff Morrell with Sue Bennett, Chancellor and Louise Hickman

Geoff Morrell with Executive Dean of the Faculty of the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities Senior Professor Sue Bennett, UOW Chancellor Michael Still and UOW Pro Vice-Chancellor (Health - Sydney campuses) Professor Louise Hickman.

Theatre life

After graduating in 1979, Geoff became a founding member of Theatre South, Wollongong’s first professional theatre company, alongside UOW academic Des Davis.

“It was around about the time that the Australian Council, through the couple of years of the Whitlam Administration, changed the arts policy and funded regional theatre companies.”

The Whitlam Government provided unprecedented support to Australia’s arts sector, helping a generation of creative Australians by providing a pathway into the arts.

His three years at Theatre South was his training ground for all things theatre.

For the next 15 years, Geoff predominately performed in live theatre, becoming a regular in Sydney Theatre Company and Belvoir St Theatre. He also spent two years in England, featuring in several productions.

Acting on screen

In 1985, Geoff started acting on screen, starring in supporting roles in films, telemovies, miniseries and regular series across the years, including Blackrock, Changi, Cloudstreet, and Oscar and Lucinda. He also had guest roles in the series The Secret Life of Us, Stingers and Farscape.

He continued his career on stage in productions of Macbeth, King Lear, and Australia's first production of Michael Gow's play Away.

His most notable role came in 2000 starring on ABC television series, Grass Roots. Followed by his move into mainstream television in Blue Heelers, Rake, Please Like Me, Top of the Lake: China Girl and Harrow. Becoming one of Australia's most prolific and versatile stage and screen actors.

Geoff has been nominated five times in the leading actor category at the AACTA awards, twice for Grass Roots, for which he won in 2001. He has also been nominated for four Silver Logies. 

He puts his relentless work ethic down to his philosophy “that you are only ever as good as your last job”.

“Acting is a frustrating life in many ways, because, unlike most careers there isn’t a defined career path. There is nothing official about this. You are forever having to be self-motivated.”

In 2015, his passion for Australian screens and theatre prompted Geoff to take on the role of Acting Equity President of Actors Equity Australia.

A new direction

Working on the most expensive television show in the world, Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, is a gig Geoff said he manifested.

Geoff was filming in Brisbane at the time. By chance his driver mentioned that the producers of Lord of the Rings were recently on set, scouting the world for where to film the series - that was reported to cost $58 million per episode.

“I rang up my manager and said ‘I want to be in Lord of the Rings’. I was thinking Gandalf or a baddie, but I couldn't get an audition for the lead bad guys. I ended up auditioning for the role of Waldreg.”

He was successful in the role and moved to New Zealand to film the series, away from his two adult children, his partner and her son, and his young grandchildren.

“The role turned out to be bigger than half the leads, I loved what I did. They kept my character alive and continued to write more and more for me.

“It was big, but it also came at a time when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this anymore. I was thinking ‘I'm always away. What am I chasing?’”

Then COVID hit. Geoff had to stay in New Zealand for 12 months. Luckily his partner and her son moved to be with him, but Geoff admits despite the enormity of the project there was a lot of downtime to contend with.

Away from his home art studio on Dharawal land, Geoff changed art practice from his usual work that merges painting, sculpture and collage with found materials, instead focusing on painting and drawing both abstract and figurative and overlaying photography.

“I started manipulating the image with double exposing photos and I did all this because I just can’t stop. I’ve got to have something.”

The result is a series of striking, multi-layered portraits, landscapes and abstract images that are haunting and beautiful.

Geoff also wrote an album in his small hotel room that he is in the process of inalizing for a release on Spotify, featuring several of his co-stars who are also singers or musicians.

He admits both pursuits seemed to be channeling something dark.

Health scare

Not long after returning to Australia, Geoff had a significant health scare and had to have brain surgery to remove a tumour. It was a meningioma, a class of tumours that develop on the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord. It was behind his right eyebrow.

“It is interesting looking at my self-portraits now. The right eye on every single face, there is something wrong with it; and that was where the tumor was that I didn’t know about. Looking at them now, I just think ‘wow!’

“The health scare and surgery has been the reboot for me in many ways. The realisation that a lot of people would kill to be involved in those kinds of projects, and to not take it for granted.

“I came back with a renewed appreciation, love for, and enthusiasm to be involved in some good storytelling.”

Geoff recently held an exhibition, titled 'The body keeps the score', at Clifton School of Arts in February featuring his artworks from his time in New Zealand, including his self-portraits.

Occasional address

Over the years, Geoff’s passion for the arts has extended into education. He has shared his wealth of experience with UOW students, teaching classes and engaging with the graduate showcase.

Today his contributions were recognised with the conferral of an Honorary Doctorate of Letters, with his partner, youngest daughter and six-month-old grandson watching on in the audience.

“I am greatly humbled by it, being something I would never have envisioned happening in my wildest dreams. I was left quite speechless and wishing that my parents were still here as their pride in this achievement would have been enormous.”

Geoff delivered the Occasional Address at this afternoon’s graduation ceremony congratulating the graduates and highlighting the important part the arts play in society

“I chose a life, and more importantly a career in the arts, in a country that doesn’t always regard working in the arts as a proper job.

“To all the artists here today, I encourage you to believe that a life and career as an artist is possible, and that the arts and artists are important. Maybe even necessary, for the functioning of a healthy culture.”