This interview originally appeared in TV EYE No. 10,
Terry Donovan has appeared in a number of Australian films and
television dramas, and is probably best remembered for his role as Det. Mick Peters in
4. Recently we talked with Terry about his career, as well as the politics of
Was your first acting role in Consider Your Verdict?
For television, yes. There were a few things that I did before that,
including some guest appearances as a singer on Channel 7.
You were a singer?
Yes, I started off as a singer, and as I went on I thought that
maybe as an actor I would have more longevity, but I still kept the singing up. To sustain
a career in television for your whole life is not impossible, but it's virtually
impossible, from the point of view that you find your way through a maze of television
stations but you have to be very lucky to consistently work all the time in television. So
the only way I thought that it would work for me was if I could cover all things and work
in the theatre, television and film. And that was a Godsend, because when television work
wasn't available, or if I wasn't chosen, I could do a bit of theatre work in musicals and
things. But getting back to television, my first role was Consider Your Verdict which
was in 1961, though I actually started professionally in the business in 1960. Consider
Your Verdict was a one hour show with only three hours of studio time, so if you
stuffed up you were in real trouble, and you had to get out of it as best you could. I was
playing a member of the bar, a young Defending Counsel, and if the witnesses said the
wrong thing you had to get them back on track. Which was legally wrong, because you were
leading the witness, but time was costing an enormous amount of money for Crawfords, so
they only had three hours and you had to do it in that time.
A lot of the witnesses' dialogue was adlibbed.
They weren't always adlibbed, but they did allow that to happen
because people didn't always stick to the script. But you had to stick to the proper
format and what the story was all about - for instance, you had to make sure the right
person was killed, and you had to make sure you had the right day and the right time, you
had to get all those details right. There were some really wonderful professional actors
on Consider Your Verdict, like Keith Eden, Wyn Roberts and George Fairfax. They
were a few of the people I worked with and I learned a lot from them, they were very
helpful to me. At the time I was also working with The Emerald Hill Theatre, a theatre
company in South Melbourne which no longer exists, and I was cutting my teeth doing some
really substantial parts and learning to be an actor.
I also did a show in 1962 or '63, I think it was called The Magic
Boomerang. That show was so cheap, there was no wardrobe, no make-up, no transport -
you made your way to location as best you could and you took your cut lunch. We shot it at
Mt. Macedon, and it was so bloody cold and there were no facilities, and I thought if this
was the introduction of doing film I didn't want to know about it! I was playing a baddie,
and another actor, Carl Bleazby, came with his coat on and, because there was no wardrobe,
they thought I should wear his coat - poor Carl nearly froze to death! But it was an
interesting time, and we all tried to do what we could for any producer that was game
enough to give it a go.·
They were very much the pioneering days.
Yes, and of course in doing all that Crawfords were my mentors. They
were wonderful people, real pioneers, they put their money and their whole livelihood on
the line to employ actors and get the whole industry moving along.
If it wasn't for Crawfords the industry wouldn't exist as we know
That's right. In 1956 when television first started the commercial
managements promised great things, they promised to do everything and they didn't do a
bloody thing. The more they could buy cheaply from overseas they tried to justify by the
fact of the cost, and they got away with it. People like Robert Menzies, the then Prime
Minister of Australia, sided with Frank Packer and allowed him to do what he wanted to do
- hence we didn't have a television and film industry because of it. Politically, Menzies
used the influence of television, radio and newspapers to keep himself in power, and that
was pretty obvious. But in doing what little we did in 1963 I, like many others, decided
to make the pilgrimage to London to see what we could pick up there and see what we could
learn there. I, like thousands of others in the arts, whether they be actors, singers,
dancers or writers, got out of this country because of the terrible situation the people
in the media had created - they just wanted to buy from the United States and nowhere
else, it was a very sad situation. So I spent a long time away, about four and a half
years. I came back in 1968 and renewed my friendships with Crawfords, and as they were
doing other shows I was put under contract.
At that stage they were producing Hunter and Homicide.
Yes, Hunter and Homicide were both on, and Channel 9
wanted a police series - Hunter didn't seem to be going in the right direction, and
they wanted a vehicle for Gerard Kennedy, who was quite taking the place by storm. In
actual fact they built up the whole thing around him, and we came up with the television
series Division 4 and I joined that. Before that, because I was under contract with
them and I was being paid, Hector rang me and asked me if I would like to come in and work
behind the scenes which was really interesting for me, doing post-synch work, timing
scripts and working with different people. I enjoyed that, I enjoyed the involvement -
Crawfords were a great team, they were trying anything and everything and it was a great
Being put on a contact with no specific role in mind was an unusual
I suppose it was a bit unusual - they were just holding me to place
me in some show, and the placement happened to be Division 4. I don't know what
they had in mind actually; all I knew was in the beginning they promised me certain things
and we had a difference of opinion about that, but eventually that sorted out and I
accompanied Gerard in Division 4 - I was his off-sider for six and a half years.
Being under contract, were you considered for Hunter as a
replacement for Tony Ward, the role which Rod Mullinar ended up playing?
I possibly may have been, but no-one told me that I was. I had been
in Hunter as a guest baddie, so it wasn't something I had thought about at that
time. I suppose if they had thrown it my way I would certainly have done it, but it's
always pretty hard emulating someone or taking over from someone - it doesn't always work
and that show did go down after Tony left. But because I was contracted to Crawfords
anything they were doing I guest spotted in - I did Hunter and Homicide as a
baddie, and ultimately Division 4 started and they set up six people in that: Gerard, Ted
Hamilton, myself, Chuck Faulkner, Patricia Smith and Frank Taylor. We were the six it was
all based around, and it became very successful - it sort of challenged Homicide,
which was pretty hard, because Homicide was an institutional thing, it was the
start of it all.
Division 4 was the next most popular
program after Homicide.
Yes, that's right and Channel 9 promoted it well. And, of course,
coming through guest spotting in all those different shows were Helen Morse, Jack
Thompson, in fact everybody who's anybody came through. It was nice to be in that and meet
everyone, it was good fun, a great time, a great time.
In the early days there were no suits: Pat Forster was in charge of
wardrobe, and the wardrobe situation was such that actors had their own. My suit was
falling off me, and Pat said it had to go. So we went to see Hector, and he said "The
suit looks fine to me". So I turned around and said 'Have a look at this", and I
bent over and my arse fell out of my pants! Hector said "We'll have to do something
about that, leave it to me, I'll organise something". Two weeks later he'd organised
it - we all had new suits, and double suits, and I thought that he went to all this
trouble just because I asked about my suit. So I went to see him and I was just about to
talk to him when I noticed he had a new suit on too. And his accountant had a new suit on
as well, so I backed out and he said "Do you want something?", and I said
"No, it's alright Hector, thanks very much for everything" and walked away. He
had made a deal with Peter Jackson's Menswear, and Hector, the accountant, lan Crawford,
everyone had new suits on - and they were all the bloody same!
Was the character of Det Peters much of a challenge for you?
Well, it wasn't very much of a challenge but I was grateful for the
work. After starting in musicals I thought I'd stretched myself enormously to get a
sustaining part in a television series - coming from playing a juvenile delinquent in
'West Side Story', having a small part situation in 'Most Happy Fellow', and being a
singer and doing 'Sound Of Music' and stage managing that area - so I thought I'd made a
giant step forward. But it wasn't challenging from the point of view that although I
occasionally got some things to do, I was always backing someone else up - Gerard was
playing the main character.
The character of Det. Peters was more than a cardboard cut-out cop -
you added a comedy touch.
Yes, I always said to put the comedy in - it was a lighter sort of
character than Gerard's, who was sort of knitted brow.
You had a major involvement with the 'TV: Make It Australian
Crawfords was a hot bed of intrigue, not only on the screen in Division
4 or Homicide or any other programme they did, but also behind the scenes it
was a hot bed of unbelievable proportions. Hector Crawford was lobbying with politicians
to try to gain more Australian content - he didn't want to be seen to be doing that, so he
allowed us to use his business to push for it. I was Equity rep - which is the most
unenviable task for any actor, nobody wants to do it and we kicked up a big stink because
we weren't getting residuals. We knew somewhere down the track they'd play all these
programmes again and again and again, and we wouldn't get a sausage for them. I got the
cast of Division 4 and Homicide and a few others together in an Equity
meeting, and the whole question of residuals was put to one side - sensibly so from the
point of view that we felt what we needed was more content. We needed to push politicians
into forcing the channels to subscribe to more content, putting more money back in,
because all the channels were making a bloody fortune but the bastards wouldn't do
In 1956 under the terms of their licence they were supposed to use
Australians in all aspects of production, and all aspects of television had to have an
Australian input. Well that was 1956 - in 1962 and '63 there was a Select Committee and
they came up with this document - the Vincent Report. It is the most wonderful document
that I have ever read to encourage Australian content. It has the reasons why it should be
done, the overseas research on it, why as a nation we should have our identity on the
television screens, why we should have a film industry, why in many ways it hasn't existed
and hasn't come to pass, and many suggestions on how it can be implemented. The Liberal
Party shelved that document and it was has never seen the light of day again. I have a
copy of it here - it has the recommendations, the quota system situation, it just goes on
and on, everything is just absolutely superbly set out. And there is not one argument
against Australian programming, not one argument saying it shouldn't happen, because a
nation with a relatively small population needs to have identity. If it doesn't have
identity it becomes a carbon copy of what the Americans are, and in many ways it's heading
a bit in that direction at the present time.
But every commercial television station has fought like blazes to
make sure a television industry will not exist. The Vincent Report was set-up to say it
should exist, but the politicians stopped it - those bastards about whom Chips Rafferty
used to say to me "They'll break your bloody heart Terry, they'll break your
heart", because they will not do anything unless they are forced to do it.
We as actors in the entertainment industry were so discouraged that
many of us went overseas, and we did not become a political force to reckon with. Now it's
a different ball game, there's a pretty big force to reckon with, and also entertainment
business is big business - huge business - and it's expanding.
Crawfords was a wonderful hot bed: we were working, it wasn't as if
we were out of work knocking on the door saying "Why aren't you employing us?",
that wasn't the case, we were working and agitating to get the politicians on side. And
things have changed for the benefit - In the 70's the industry was in a better position,
the industry started to get legs, things started to happen - the 'TV: Make it Australian
Any politician of any colour would say "Oh yes, this is
wrong", but not many of the bastards would tum around and change it, because they
wanted Packer, who owned the newspapers and television and radio stations to be on side
with them, especially at election time. So when I look back on Crawfords it was just the
most wonderful time, the most wonderful group of people.
In effect they set up an industry in spite of the TV stations.
They did. But they almost went to the wall a few times, so it was
really difficult for them to keep going. And of course Hector Crawford was known as the
'Silver Fox' because he was rather light of feet and nimble of mind, and he allowed us to
use his company to agitate for these things, which he was after too - which was great.
Do you agree with the conspiracy theory that the cancellation of the
three police shows was an attempt to put Crawfords out of business?
Oh absolutely, absolutely. And if they could keep Crawfords down it
would virtually white-ant the whole television drama industry on the commercial side.
Crawfords had three shows on - Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police
- and the stations put them all up against each other, to undermine Hector and to break
him. They had enormous ads in the paper all over the country saying 'You're going to lose
all these overseas programmes if we have to make more Australian content'. They spent
hundreds of thousands of dollars to try and screw us, and to try and screw their own
One of the outcomes of that was the decline in quality from Homicide
to soap operas.
That's right, and people had to adjust. It was unfortunate, nobody
wanted it that way - we didn't want it to go backwards, we didn't want to produce five
half-hours a week instead of producing one hour a week, but that was another way of the
commercial television managements saying we couldn't do it. The commercial managements in
actual fact tried on several occasions to do it themselves - they could never do it, never
in a month of Sundays could they do it. They could handle variety, they could handle
certain other things, but they could not handle doing drama, they just did not have the
expertise to do it. They always had to go outside and find a private production company
who were specialised in that area.
So those years at Crawfords were invaluable, not only for me but for
actors generally, and generally for the public and generally for the country. Out of that
lots of actors, directors and writers came and went, and some have gone on to have their
own production companies and their own shows.
You stayed with Division 4, in fact everyone stayed with Division
4 for a long time.
We did. People were leaving every other show, but not Division 4 -
we all stayed except Pat Smith and Ted Hamilton.
Any reason for that, or did it just happen?
I think it was because we got on very well as a team, but we also
seemed to have ideas that there wasn't much else to do, there wasn't much work out there
to sustain a life. And so we stayed, thinking that when it all changes we'II make the
move, but after six years they made the move for us and cancelled the show.
In the penultimate episode Gerard Kennedy left and was replaced by
John Stanton for only one appearance.
John is a very good actor, a very fine actor, I love his work. I
think what happened is that Channel 9 virtually wanted Gerard, and if he was going to stay
the show might stay, but Gerard wanted to move on. Crawfords made the casting decision to
replace him with John, but the channel had the power to cancel the show and that's exactly
what they did.
So Division 4 finished, and one had to virtually reinvent
oneself and get back to the theatre, which is what I did. I went back to the Melbourne
Theatre Company, but I also guest starred in other shows like The Last Of The
Australians. Johnny Farnham was in that episode, and of course Alwyn Kurts, who never
stopped lecturing me on how to do comedy, he was an absolute pain in the arse. I blame
myself for that because he is a friend of mine, and we went off to Los Angeles for a
Christmas holiday. When we were in Hollywood I went to Larry's Bookshop, which is a very
large show-business bookshop, and I bought a book about comedy and comedians, and I
thought Alwyn would really love this book. Well, he was thrilled with it, he read it from
cover to cover, then he tended to lecture me about comedy - he was an absolute pain in the
arse! So when I did The Last Of The Australians he would tell me "No, no,
Terry, no, no - you don't do it like that, you do it like this" and I said
you buzz off and let me be the actor!" We had lots of laughs about it.
Then I did Tandarra, in which Gerard was the lead. I had to
ride a horse, and I pulled the reins but nobody told me that if you pull the reins a
certain way the horse drops to the ground - just like that. The horse hit the ground, I
hit the ground, the horse jumped over the camera and bolted, it caused no end of problems
and took half a day to get the horse back. Later I was talking to the horse trainer and he
said that he was a wonderful horse but he had these funny quirky things that he did: when
he opened the door of the float, the horse would run out backwards and knock him over
every time. So he went down to St. Kilda pier, put the float on the pier and opened the
thing, and the horse went straight into the water! He said he never did it again!
I had a part in Solo One, in which Paul Cronin was the lead,
and we had to row down a flooded river. But there was a drought and there was no water, so
they kept the camera low to make it look like a flowing river, and then when they said
"Cut! - Lunch!" I stepped out in two inches of water!
You were considered for the lead role in Rush.
Yes, I was going to be in that; some circumstances prevented that
happening, and I wish that I had been in it. John Waters got the part, and he was good, he
was very good. He's gone on to bigger and better things, and he's doing very well. I
played a guest role in an episode of that.
I also did Hotel Story which was something new, but it didn't
last long. It would have been a good show if the channel had persevered with it. I did Power
Without Glory for the ABC, I was in about 18 episodes of 26, and I was pleased that I
got the part, it worked out really well. And also it's the type of programme and material
that the commercial channels would never touch. What the commercial managements do if
somebody does break new ground in some area is emulate each other - if it's a police thing
they all want a police thing, if it's comedy they all want the comedy thing. That's why
it's essential to have the ABC there, it's just a wonderful institution - you might gripe
about it, but without it the other channels would just be transmitter stations for the
American pattern that comes in. There are some great American shows but there is a lot of
One could be forgiven for thinking
that Australia has no television history, as the only old programmes we see repeated are
It's such a sad situation to think that most of the stuff that we
can hoist the flag up for is about America and Americans. Now I love American programmes,
and I love to see what they do, and some of it they do brilliantly - but that's not to say
we should have everything from there, especially in the children's area where they are
influenced a great deal by things.
Did you ever work in Sydney?
The Outsiders I did in Sydney, and also Going Home,
another ABC one-off drama, but there just happened to be enough work down here, plus I was
also back in the theatre doing musicals.
I took over from George Mallaby about the end of
1978, I did about 18 months to 2 years in that. That was one of the funniest groups of
people to work with. The women were just wonderful, they were so much fun to work with,
they all joked around and got the job done, and yet it was one of the hardest shows I've
ever had to do. In Division 4 we were doing one hour a week, but on Cop Shop
we had two hours to do a week. It was most unrewarding, because my character Vic Cameron
was the boss, and he was behind the desk all the time. So you could only go this way
around a desk or that way around a desk, or go to the filing cabinet, and you just had
this verbal diahorrea of words. I almost became an alcoholic because at the end of the
week I couldn't wait to have a drink to get over it. The show was very difficult from that
point of view, but the people in it were just a joy to work with, an absolute joy.
Were you disappointed with Cop Shop after the quality of Division
I must say I wasn't happy with it, but I'm a working actor with a
family, so because of certain personal things happening in my life I had to survive, and I
think it's better to be working than waving the flag of principles. It's all very well
being in a situation where you are able to say "Oh, I wouldn't do this or wouldn't do
that", but the reality is you've got to survive, and if you're supporting people you
have obligations. So there were some things I didn't want to do, but I did them because I
had obligations to people and I had to work, and that's what most actors do. The ones who
can afford to pick and choose either don't have the obligations or are financially secure.
But if you've got a wife and child you've got to work just like everyone else, and
hopefully pick up a few gems along the way. The Australian film and television industry is
always in a process of pioneering and taking enormous strides forwards, and then having to
come back and then having to go forward again. Yes, I do feel the standard of Cop Shop
was a backwards step, but I couldn't tum around and sit on my high horse and think I'II
live in the past - I've got to live in the present.