Oscar-nominated Australian writer and director David Stevens died on Tuesday in his home town of Whangarei, New Zealand from cancer. He was 77.
Stevens co-wrote Breaker Morant with Jonathan Hardy and director Bruce Beresford, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1981.
Born in Palestine when it was under British control – his father was an English aircraft engineer specialising in flying boats – he emigrated to New Zealand in the 1960s.
He directed a radio play and TV productions spanning drama, comedy and documentary before moving to Australia in the early 1970s.
After joining the creative stable at Crawford Productions, he wrote and directed multiple episodes of Homicide, Matlock Police, Solo One, Bluey and The Sullivans.
In 1994 he adapted The Sum of Us, his play about a widowed father and his young gay son, into the feature film co-directed by Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling, which starred Jack Thompson, Russell Crowe and John Polson.
His directing credits include the features The Clinic, a comedy set in a VD clinic, and Undercover, based on the true story of the rise of Berlei lingerie set in 1920s Sydney, plus the miniseries A Town Like Alice, A Thousand Skies and Women of the Sun.
For producer Henry Crawford he wrote and directed Always Afternoon, a German/Australian miniseries for SBS. Ever-meticulous in his preparation, he learned enough German so he could direct the German actors in their own language.
In 1987 he began an 18 year stint in Los Angeles. He once described making his first American movie, Kansas, a crime drama starring Matt Dillon, as like “nuclear war virtually every day. ” He returned to TV writing, including the miniseries Merlin which starred Sam Neill.
He also collaborated on two book/TV projects with Roots’ Alex Haley. The miniseries Queen was nominated for a best miniseries Emmy. He was a rare white winner of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) award for his part in Mama Flora’s Family. He also wrote the novel The Waters of Babylon, which fictionalised the complex personality of T.E. Lawrence.
Writer-producer Tony Cavanaugh was 18 when he first worked with Stevens as a clapper loader on The John Sullivan Story, a spin-off of the series. “David Stevens was the director and he was already a total legend as a writer – like a God,” he tells IF.
“On day one David stood on the roof of the camera truck and made a speech, like no-one had ever, ever done: ‘We are all going to be scared. I am scared. You are scared. All the way through the making of this telemovie, we will make a great show and when you are scared, come to me and when I am scared, I will come to you.’ David’s career was beyond brilliant, in Australia, the US and NZ. He wrote all the way through, in theatre and film, until very recently.”
Actor Ross Skiffington first met Stevens in New Zealand and later shared a house with him and fellow Crawfords writer-director John Barningham in Melbourne. “David eventually found himself in America where he did extremely well as a writer, film director and bon vivant. A remarkable creative and fabulous friend,” he said.
Among many other tributes on Facebook actor Chantal Contouri said: “Rest in Peace darling man…thank you for guiding me.”
Writer-script editor Karin Altmann said: “I’ve lost a friend. Erudite, mercurial, warm, kind, occasionally daffy and always blindingly smart. Sailor, I will miss you.”
Actor Andrew McFarlane reflected: “David (Sailor) Stevens and John (Barney) Barningham were two lighthouses in my early life as an actor. Both enormously entertaining and talented creative directors and writers and friends who steered me and my career in the right direction while I was working in The Sullivans in the 70s.”
Survivors include his partner Loren Boothby and two sisters who live in England.