Lorraine Bayly: ‘I’ve gone from one illness to another’
It can be frustrating for Lorraine Bayly to listen to people complain about lockdown.
After all, a few weeks - or even months - is nothing compared to the two-and-a-half years the Logie-winning actor has spent isolated at home in her one-bedroom Sydney apartment as she recuperates from serious health problems.
First, she was diagnosed with pneumonia shortly after visiting her close friend Home And Away star Cornelia Frances at her hospital deathbed in 2018. That illness led to a partially collapsed lung. And not long after she'd recovered from that, she discovered she had breast cancer.
Since undergoing a mastectomy and other treatment, 84-year-old Bayly has been given a clean bill of health. But due to the risk posed by COVID to someone of her age who has battled cancer and respiratory issues, her life is still tightly restricted.
"I've spent the past two-and-a-half years going from one illness to another," she tells Stellar.
"But I don't complain because for the first 80-odd years of my life, I got through without any serious illness at all. You look at the little kids on television who are fighting cancer and all sorts of problems... They're the ones my heart breaks for."
Although Bayly's health issues forced her into "early retirement" (albeit in her 80s) from a long and celebrated career on stage and screen, she has hardly sat around twiddling her thumbs. Instead, she uses her time for self-improvement.
Having made it her mission to master a new skill every decade, Bayly is already a skilled ventriloquist, and has studied both hairdressing and make-up artistry - which meant she didn't need help getting camera-ready for her photo shoot with Stellar.
At 60, she learnt to play the saxophone so well that she ended up playing on stage; at 70, she took up tennis and qualified for the 2009 World Masters Games only two years later.
Bayly's commitment and determination were never more evident than when she broke her foot onstage during the opening night of the musical The Sound Of Music in 2015.
Ignoring the pain, she managed a joke for the audience about having had a few too many sly sips of sherry.
Then she hobbled her way through her entire performance as housekeeper Frau Schmidt before skipping the after-party to head to the hospital.
Cameron Daddo, who played Captain von Trapp in the show, recalls that night: "The actors in the wings held our breath to see what she would do. Lorraine did what any actor of her expertise and professionalism would do - she got up with help from [co-star] Philip Dodd, and kept the story alive and moving.
"No-one in that audience was any the wiser, other than to be impressed with Lorraine's stunt fall."
Having watched Bayly on hit TV show The Sullivans when he was growing up, Daddo was already a longtime fan, and says his admiration only grew after he worked with her.
"She turned 80 when we were working together and thereby gave me a lesson in life: If you're curious and determined, you can do whatever you want up to most any age," he tells Stellar.
"I'll always admire her kindness, her willingness to step up and [that while nursing her injury] she sat alert on a side-stage chair, with a smile and always ready for her cue."
Over her six-decade career, Bayly has gone from entertaining children on Play School to starring opposite Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas in the 1982 film The Man From Snowy River.
But the role she's still most recognised for is Sullivan matriarch Grace in the beloved Second World War-era show that ran from 1976 to 1983.
It's testament to her popularity that the show's success dipped after she left the cast in 1979, and that even today, Grace is still consistently named as one of Australia's favourite TV mothers.
The actor laughs as she points out that she was only in her 30s when she landed the role of Grace, and had to draw on those hair and make-up skills to make herself look like the mother of adult sons.
During her years on the show, Bayly nurtured a lot of young talent, including Noni Hazlehurst, for whom The Sullivans was her first major television role.
"Lorraine was always professional, always prepared and always so kind," Hazlehurst tells Stellar.
"She has a great sense of humour and never gossiped behind people's backs. She was a wonderful mentor but not in an overt or pushy way. Being motherly isn't just exclusive to those who have given birth [Bayly never had children] - it's something a lot of women like Lorraine have at their fingertips."
Bayly has loved performing for as long as she can remember, and would even put on shows at the local jail where her father worked as a policeman during her childhood in the southern NSW town of Narrandera. It's one of the great regrets of her life that her father didn't live to see her success as an actor.
"He never saw me acting," she says. "He died 10 days before he was going to see me in the first play I did. When I got the Member of the Order of Australia in 2001, I remember sitting there, crying inside as I thought how my father should be here."
Bayly was just six when she went to live in Batlow with her father after her parents divorced, while her younger sister stayed with her mother more than 180km away in Batemans Bay. The emotional toll of being separated from her mother and sister still weighs heavily.
"Back then, if there were two kids, they would give one to each parent," she says through tears.
"And that was horrible. The younger one went with my mother because they thought she needed a mother more. We would only see each other on school holidays and at the end of it, they would have to pull us apart to separate us."
But that difficult childhood experience, just like her recent health problems, has not held her back, nor left her bitter. Ever the optimist, Bayly says she always looks forward to a new challenge. And next on her list is learning a new language.
"I can't make up my mind between French and Italian, but I have got the rest of the decade to decide," she says with a laugh. "Perhaps there will even be time for both."
Originally published as Lorraine Bayly: 'I've gone from one illness to another'