Dennis Coard may have been a late starter, but he has since made up for it. The beloved Michael Ross from Home and Away waited until he was 35 years old before starting out on his professional acting journey.
Actually, the seeds were sown a bit earlier than that. As a precocious youngster in his native Ireland, he would entertain his mum, dad and three brothers with modest ‘shows’ inspired by his gregarious father.
Out of the pit, onto the stage
‘There were no drama classes in my Irish primary school, nor later in the Australian high school I emigrated to, so my early thespian ambitions withered. So much so, I got a “real job” and worked for nearly 20 years as a Telecom technician,’ he told fellow Media Super member, John Dickson.
Weary of the daily grind of pits and wires, at age 35 Dennis decided to have another crack at acting.
‘I had been in a couple of amateur productions, and the “bug” had taken hold again,’ he said.
He decided to apply to Melbourne’s prestigious drama school at the Victorian College of the Arts and was immediately accepted.
‘The VCA was a life-changer. In fact, it was there that I was offered some inspirational advice that has driven me ever since.’
Respected Shakespearean teacher, the late June Jago, told the not-so-young aspiring actor that ‘you can only do today what you can do today – but don’t waste a minute’.
‘I took that advice to heart, and made the most of every opportunity the VCA had to offer. After three years study, I was immediately offered the leading role of Noel in Ray Argall’s film Return Home,’ Dennis said.
The critically acclaimed film that also starred Frankie J. Holden and a young Ben Mendelsohn, went on to win 1990 AFI awards for Best Actor and Best Director.
Dennis scarcely drew breath before Roger Hodgman had offered him eight months work at the celebrated Melbourne Theatre Company.
The following year presented a turning point in Dennis’ career that would dictate everything that followed. He became Pippa Fletcher’s second husband on Home and Away, and later, actor Debra Lawrance’s husband in real life.
‘I don’t regret for one second my six years with the show. It gave me experience, travel, a lovely home, a beautiful wife and family; and because of the nurturing foster-parents we portrayed, Debra and I have had a 25-year association with Barnardos Australia, The Children’s Charity,’ Dennis said.
Asked if he was surprised at Home and Away’s longevity in celebrating its 30 year anniversary, Dennis said: ‘If you get the right formula, and don’t fiddle with it too much, then it will keep working. The Poms understand this – they will probably be making Coronation Street and Eastenders forever.
‘Actually by that standard, we should still be making Bellbird and A Country Practice,’ he laughed.
Dennis is a champion of all art forms, and believes they need to be given the opportunity to reflect our society back to us.
‘This is especially so now, given that overseas content is becoming all-pervasive. We must be mindful of promoting our own culture. Cuts to funding of the arts in Australia impact on our ability to reflect, celebrate and enhance our society.
‘We are a species that loves to tell stories. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be able to combine my pastime, my profession and my passion all into one package,’ he said.
However, this remains something of a tightrope walk for Dennis.
‘The hardest thing about what I do is balancing the need to earn a living from my chosen craft but not letting that need get in the way of the work.
‘Also, that the basic rates of pay for stage, screen, television drama and commercials have either stayed the same, or gone backwards, does not help,’ he said.
No moss gathered
But it won’t slow him. In recent times, Dennis has excited Melbourne audiences with his powerful role as Edward Denmann in Patient 12, reprised the cantankerous Father O’Leary in the third series of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, found time to appear in US feature film San Andreas, and is currently touring Jonathan Biggins’ play Australia Day.
He is also planning a tour of his own one-man show The Fall of the Roman Umpire, and writing a one-hander based on the life and work of Alan “I Can Jump Puddles” Marshall.
In the words of the ever-busy Dennis Coard himself: ‘don’t wait for others to affirm you, to cast you, to employ you – you can create your own work.’