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Revered and liked and talented, Michael Pate had an interesting face but his real charm lay in his voice. His deep baritone allowed him to bring much gravitas and dignity to his roles, writes Geoff Gardner.

"Randolph Scott said to Joseph H Lewis that he had to tell me to slow my drawn down. Randolph was coming into the salon and was throwing himself forward and was supposed to plug me. But I had my gun out first. I had practised drawing quickly and Randolph didn't like it". Michael Pate was a great raconteur and he had a lot of stories to tell about his days as a supporting actor in over a hundred Hollywood movies. When I asked him about his part in A Lawless Street, he launched into that very funny pantomime of the shoot out between himself and Randolph Scott. He had his audience rolling.

The last time I saw him, he was still the raconteur, doing a live commentary at a screening of Frank Hurley's silent Pearls and Savages at Canberra's Albert Hall, attempting to recreate the atmosphere of one of Hurley's 1920s screenings where he did live voice over to somewhat banal travelogue footage. I suspect, given the crowd, that he did that gig for love.

"he made contributions in unlikely places"

But Pate did well out of a craft he always loved and he made contributions in unlikely places. For some reason his face, especially when daubed with paint, seemed to look like the iconic notion of the noble savage he played more than a few times. His jet black hair helped that image. He played a host of colourful American Indian characters in Hollywood westerns good and bad. I mentioned the still largely unsung western by Joseph H Lewis, A Lawless Street, one of the remarkable B pictures Randolph Scott made throughout the fifties, but the best known is Hondo, a quite extraordinary movie directed by the Australian John Farrow, one of the earliest films to show the American Indian in a dignified light. It was made by John Wayne's company in 3-D and last year it's reaffirmation as a classic was completed when it was shown at a special screening at Cannes, in 3-D, before its release on DVD.

Pate however, while a versatile actor, never stopped trying to involve himself at other points in the film industry. He was a writer and his original idea for Escape From Fort Bravo was later adapted into a fine western starring William Holden and directed by John Sturges. It's hard to be very precise about just how much writing he did in the States. It's hard to know just how much of his writing ever got to the screen and maybe there's a project in there for future historians

When he returned to Australia in the 60s he quickly got himself involved in TV and as well as acting worked on production at Channel 7 on the hit series Matlock Police. He also got himself involved in the feature film industry and kept an eye out for opportunities to involve himself in production and direction. He was an associate producer on Michael Powell's Age of Consent (1968), produced The Mango Tree (1977) which starred his son Christopher, and wrote directed and produced Tim (1979) starring the young Mel Gibson and the renowned Hollywood actress, Piper Laurie.

He will be best remembered for his contributions in America to Hondo, A Lawless Street, The Court Jester, Julius Caesar and The Desert Rats especially. In Australia Matlock Police is a revered Crawfords series but he was also superb as the Archbishop Mannix stand in the wonderful ABC adaptation of Frank Hardy's Power Without Glory. His biggest part in a modern Australian movie was as one of the leads in Tim Burstall's Duet for Four alongside Mike Preston, Wendy Hughes and Diane Cilento. If there are to be tributes to him, that film ought to be revived and screened alongside his early pre-Hollywood successes 40,000 Horsemen, Rats of Tobruk, Bitter Springs and Sons of Mathew.

"an interesting face but his real charm lay in his voice"

Michael Pate had an interesting face but his real charm lay in his voice. His deep baritone allowed him to bring much gravitas and dignity to roles even when, as in his part in Danny Kaye's The Court Jester, he had to play comedy. He never seemed to stop working and he always seemed to be enjoying himself. Get him in a room and he'd keep you amused for hours regaling stories of a life that took him to success in Hollywood and a revered status back home.

Published September 5, 2008

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Michael Pate

Born February 26, 1920, in Sydney; died September 1, 2008, in Sydney


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