Remembering Aussie Pioneer Terry Bourke

February 7, 2017
Under-celebrated and underrated, late pioneering Australian producer, director, and journalist, Terry Bourke (pictured above left), finally gets his due, thanks to his friend, Richard Harris.

It was 1995 when my path crossed with writer/director, Terry Bourke. I was two years out of school, a little lost and really wanting to be involved in the film and television industry. I stumbled across an advertisement for a scriptwriting course (via correspondence) at The Australian College Of Journalism. I had always loved film and writing, so I thought, ‘Why not combine my interests and start my career?!’ The course tutor turned out to be none other than Terry Bourke!

The prospectus reeled off his credits, which included Night Of Fear, Inn Of The Damned, Little Boy Lost, Brothers, and the TV series, Spyforce…none of which I’d heard of! Despite that, I got stuck into the course with great enthusiasm. After a few weeks, I had my first phone call from Terry. I found him to be pleasant, intelligent, and quite tough with what he expected from his students. Being the sarcastic twenty-year-old that I was, I made some humorous remark which was met by silence and then, after what seemed like an age, an unexpected roar of laughter. It was then that Terry invited me to lunch at Planet Hollywood in Sydney.

Roger Ward, Richard Harris, Ray Henman & son, and Terry Bourke on the set of a short film.

After our first meeting, it was clear to me that Terry was quite the character, with great stories and experiences to share, mostly of famous people, but I’m not sure if he took a few liberties with the facts. He was a writer after all! It was also at this meeting that he shared with me that he had suffered a serious heart attack and was still on the slow road to recovery. Unbeknownst to him, I was born with a congenital heart condition and understood the psychological toll that it could take. It was this common bond that seemed to cement our friendship.

Terry had started out as a cadet journalist in his hometown of Bairnsdale, Victoria, where he was school friends with playwright, David Williamson. He had boxed professionally, played drums, and cycled in races. Terry was the type of character that always liked adventure and wanted to be where the action was. In his 20s, Terry headed to Hong Kong and worked as a showbiz writer for The Australian and The China Mail. He relayed stories of working with a young Nene King [the high profile editor of magazines like Woman’s Day, New Idea, and Women’s Weekly], and also babysitting [INXS frontman] Michael Hutchence and his brother, Rhett, due to his association with their mother and sister. It was in Hong Kong that Terry entered the world of film.

In the 1960s, the famous Shaw Brothers dominated the Hong Kong film scene, with a reputation for no-nonsense filmmaking, and Terry learned a lot from watching the brothers work. It was with this new knowledge that he managed to raise over $300,000 in 1965 for a film called Strange Portrait…not bad for an Aussie journalist.

Steve McQueen and Terry Bourke/The Australian Woman’s Weekly/Bauer Media PTY Limited

As a member of the foreign press, living in Hong Kong, Terry was soon approached by Robert Wise’s assistant director to take care of Steve McQueen while they shot the war drama, The Sand Pebbles, there. After playing the tour guide to McQueen and his family, Steve asked Terry to accompany him on set, and the two became good friends; a friendship which lasted up until the final years of McQueen’s life. Terry recalled a story to me, with sadness in his eyes, of his final phone call with the great star, less than a year before his death from cancer. Terry called McQueen and said, “I’m coming out to LA, any chance of a catch up?” Steve replied through a bad cough “Maybe when I’m better, on your next visit.” Unfortunately, there was never to be another chance for the two to meet up.

Terry wrote, produced, and directed his first film, Sampan, in 1968. He practiced what he learned from the Hong Kong film sets, having complete control over every aspect of production, and becoming the first western director to direct a Hong Kong film in the process. He was also credited with featuring the first nude scene in Hong Kong cinema. Sampan became the most successful film in Hong Kong that year. His next film was Noon Sunday, starring the late Mark Leonard of Star Trek fame. It was also successful in its own right.

In 1971, Terry returned to Australia, where he became involved in the series, Spyforce, writing and directing episodes. Some of the crew liked to taunt him with “Mr. Hollywood”, because word of his Hong Kong exploits and success had preceded him. Terry explained to me how he endeared himself to sceptical crew members by making a scrap of land look like the WW2 Pacific Islands! It was a talent that he would use many times in his later films.

A vintage news story on Terry Bourke and Rod Hay.

It was on the set of Spyforce that Terry would meet editor, Rod Hay, with whom he formed a business partnership that would create Australian film history. Terry and Rod were chalk and cheese. Terry was abrasive and egotistical, and liked things his own way. He would work all night and maybe sleep four hours in the day. Rod was refined, meticulous, and softly spoken. Yet together, they were at the forefront of a resurgence of the Australian Film Industry. They approached the ABC with a story for a horror series that Terry had written called Night Of Fear, a 54-minute horror film made for TV. When the ABC saw the final cut, it proved too graphic and controversial, so they cancelled the series and signed the film over to partners, wiping their hands of it. Apparently, what they couldn’t wipe their hands of was the rat infestation that the studio endured because of the many rats used during production. Terry, in particular, found that quite amusing.

With Night Of Fear in their hands, they set out to obtain a rating and a distributor. It became the first film to be banned by the censors, and politician, Neville Wran, made it his personal mission to never let the film see the light of day. Rod and Terry lobbied hard and eventually received an R rating. They premiered Night Of Fear in a strip club in Kings Cross before taking the film around Australia. Rod Hay recalls the time fondly, and they made some money too.

Vintage Night Of Fear poster.

In 1973, the two partnered up again, this time on a project titled Inn Of The Damned, another horror story which was described as a Hitchcock western. It starred Dame Judith Anderson, American actor, Alex Cord (who later starred in the TV series, Airwolf), Michael Craig, the wonderful Tony Bonner, and John Meillon. Terry had described to me how he and John Meillon clashed, and how on one particular day, John was so drunk that he had to prop him up against a tree and threaten to punch his lights out if he didn’t pull it together. John indeed pulled himself together and delivered his lines perfectly. He then fell down asleep next to the tree till late afternoon!

It is a testament to Terry’s ability as a producer that both films got made. His contemporaries of the day – such as Fred Schepisi, Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir and George Miller – were properly trained and had a respect for the system, which Terry did not. He’d often “shoot himself in the foot” and topple a production because he was stubborn and wanted full control. He was honest about his abilities, and would often say to me that he did not have the same talent that Peter, George, or Fred had.

Vintage Inn Of The Damned poster.

I was fortunate enough to see screenings of those films, plus his other feature, Lady Stay Dead, at The Encore Cinema in Surry Hills in the late nineties. It was always exciting as he would invite along old friends such as Michael Pate, Tony Bonner, John Orcsik and one of my heroes, Roger Ward, of Mad Max and Stone fame. I had met Roger at a party with Terry, and it wasn’t long before we became friends. He is a gentle giant and a stand up man. He and Terry would keep in constant contact, though it was Terry who benefited more from the friendship.

Terry was a showbiz writer. He’d sell stories to the papers, and he loved a good gossip. He was always sharing memories of the celebrities that he’d met and worked with, such as Mel Gibson, Bryan Brown, George Miller, Robert Wise, Jeffery Hunter, John Wayne, Burgess Meredith, Jeff Bridges and the great martial artist, Bruce Lee, who in 1971, just before Terry returned to Australia, invited him to come watch him “kick some ass!” – on the screen, that was! As I said before, Terry was a writer, so he could have spiced these stories up a bit, but when he did pass away, I wrote to both Russell Crowe and Jeff Bridges about Terry, and received some amazing correspondences from them.

Vintage Lady Stay Dead poster.

When people talk about Australian film, Terry’s name is almost never mentioned, but he did play an important role in the resurgence of the industry. He was tough, egotistical, and intelligent. He was a larrikin who was as stubborn as he was talented. He had a nasty habit of “stringing you along”, and leaving you hoping and waiting for it all to happen. But to me, Terry was a mentor and friend and someone who I confided in with my ideas for film and TV. He was a maverick and rogue in the industry and had quite a reputation.

I had sent film director, Brian Trenchard-Smith, a message asking him about Terry, and his first reply was, “He still owes me $600 from Night Of Fear!” It seems that anyone I talk to about Terry has a tale to tell, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, he usually owed them money that was never repaid. Rod Hay informed me of a rather large debt that he was owed after the dissolve of their partnership, and Roger Ward also fell out of pocket with Terry in many ways, from film and script payments to dinner IOUs! I myself got out of it with just losing a few dollars!

Terry Bourke’s gravestone in Bairnsdale.

We’d often talk about his career, and I would ask how he would like to be remembered. Terry would usually answer that he didn’t care, but I know that he liked knowing that he’s a bit of a maverick in the industry, whether that did him any favours or not.

Apparently, I was the last person to speak to Terry on the June night of 2002 when he passed away. I’ll never forget him, and it would be nice for his name to be written in the history books for the things that he did (and the buttons that he pushed) within the Australian film industry. Despite all the stories of things that he experienced professionally, Terry’s greatest achievement was his children. “They grew up and did better than me,” he told me. “And as a father, that’s all you can ask for.”



  1. Roger Ward

    Nice article Richie, well done and a great tribute to the cantankerous, but lovable, TB.

  2. Nigel Giles

    Great tribute to Terry. He gets a mention in my soon-to-be-released book on the TV series Number 96. As does the “gentle giant” Mr Ward

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