Kiwi actor John Clarke has died during a hike in an Australian Park. He was 68.

The comedian, known for his iconic role as Fred Dagg, died on Sunday while hiking in the Grampians National Park in Victoria, confirmed an ABC spokesperson to the Herald.

The spokesperson said he died of natural causes.

John Clarke as Fred Dagg in 1987.
John Clarke as Fred Dagg in 1987.

Clarke, who was born in Palmerston North but spent much of his time in Australia, became known for his comedy character Fred Dagg on stage and screen in the late '70s.

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Prime Minister Bill English tweeted his sadness for the comedian.


Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little said: "I grew up with Fred Dagg and I am devastated by John Clarke's death. He taught us to laugh at ourselves and more importantly laugh at our politicians.

"Fred Dagg was his greatest creation and inspired a whole generation of comics and for the first time headlined political current affairs shows pricking the bombast on both sides of the House.

"Fred and his seven sons all called Trevor went on to create one of New Zealand's all-time best musical sellers with Fred Dagg's Greatest Hits and the iconic song We don't know how lucky we are.

"I extend our condolences to John's family and friends on the loss of a great Kiwi. We know how lucky we were."

Palmerston North MP Iain Lees-Galloway called Clarke one of the city's "favourite sons". He said the comedian would be missed by millions of people.

"For us here in Palmerston North it's really a time to reflect and celebrate one of the most influential people to have come from our city.

"He was the ultimate antidote to John Cleese."

Lees-Galloway believed it would be appropriate if Palmerston North held an event to commemorate Clarke's life. He said that Clarke, Murray Ball and Tom Scott had all come out of the Manawatu area around the same time.

"It just shows that the finest brains and entertainers can come from all parts of the country."

Dagg 'seemed real'

Clad in gumboots and a black singlet, Dagg was played with such conviction that to many New Zealanders, he was a real person.

But when Clarke relocated to Australia in search of creative greener pastures in the late 1970s, he took his cherished Kiwi icon with him.

Read more: Twelve questions with John Clarke

He left with a sense of disillusionment stemming from a run-in with the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC).

"In a place the size of New Zealand there is only one game in town and if you are not allowed to do it, what can you do?'' Clarke said in a Listener interview in 1990.

"There's no structure to what I do and no school you can go to, to get a qualification. That's the challenge. You have to carve out different territories and stick different survey pegs in them.

"That was difficult to do in New Zealand where I dealt with directors who thought they were comic geniuses and regarded me as a hired hand.

"I have never had those problems in Australia.''

John Clarke as his legendary comic creation Fred Dagg in 1975.
John Clarke as his legendary comic creation Fred Dagg in 1975.

Although it has been years since New Zealanders have had a glimpse of Dagg, Clarke has kept popping up in different guises to remind his birth country that our loss was Australia's gain.

Anyone who saw him play the comic foil to Sam Neill's fall guy in the 1990 Australian film Death in Brunswick will testify to the universal appeal of his laid back style, deadpan delivery and comic timing.

After settling in Melbourne, Clarke became such a hit on Australian television that cross-dressing comic Barry Humphries described Clarke as "Australia's best humourist".

Clarke became known to many Australians for his five minute satirical spots on Channel Nine's Friday news programme A Current Affair since 1989.

He was also co-wrote ABCTV's The Fast Lane from 1983-85, as well as co-wrote and appeared in ABCTV's The Gillies Report from 1985-86.


Death In Brunswick

aside, Clarke's film credits included

Lonely Hearts

(1981),

Footrot Flats

(1985),

A Matter of Convenience

(1987) and

Blood Oath

(1989).

He once said: "The danger that I might go to America and become a multi-millionaire sex symbol is minimal.''

Clarke was born in Palmerston North - "not Vienna'' as he quaintly put it - in 1948. He went to primary school in Palmerston North before going to Wellington's Scots College, after which he spent 14 months working on a shearing gang.

"My teachers mistook my indolence for rebellion and I was often caned. At one stage I held the world record. When I left secondary school I knew roughly what I knew when I left primary school plus how to shave," Clarke said.

John Clarke, pictured in 2000.
John Clarke, pictured in 2000.

In between time spent on a law degree and Batchelor of Arts - completing neither - he performed in satirical revues while at Victoria University in Wellington.

On the revues he worked with "some very talented people" including Ginette McDonald, Tom Scott and "a brilliantly funny young man, Paul Holmes".

After a year at the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC), a bored Clarke went to London.

"When I left my file said that I should not be employed under any circumstances whatsoever."

From 1971-73, he "swanned around" Europe and held a lot of itinerant jobs in England before returning convinced that New Zealand was ready for satirical innovation.

The Fred Dagg character was born and promulgated between 1973 and 1977. There were radio, TV and stage shows as well as record albums.

Although Fred Dagg became a runaway success, Clarke again fell foul of the NZBC.

"I was put off air once and prevented from making a series because someone said it didn't work.

"In the end I realised I would have to go to a country where I could explore more forms."

In 1996 National Radio's Kim Hill asked Clarke if he left New Zealand with ill feeling towards the NZBC.

"No, not at all,'' he said. "I had ill feelings before I left."

Clarke also published books for a living. Publications included A Complete Dagg in 1989, The Complete Book of Australian Verse in 1989 and Great Interviews of the 20th Century in 1990.

In 1973, he married Helen McDonald with whom he had two daughters.

'He always leaves me with a smile'

Tributes quickly began flowing in as news of John Clarke's death spread.

Omatane, Taihape farmer of 50 years standing Ken Donovan said John Clarke was a good man who "farmers laughed at as much as anyone.

"He was like Billy T. [James]. He had the knack of tuning into the mood of the country."

Mr Donavan said farmers found Fred Dagg as funny as anyone.

"He was a good man. He didn't do farming any harm at all."





















John Clarke's five-step guide to New Zealand

• "The principal business in New Zealand used to be sheep but the country has now moved into milk in a big way, and if you'd like to enjoy the beautifully clean swift-flowing New Zealand river system, you should make every effort to get out there before the dairy industry gets any more successful. New Zealand also produces a large quantity of fruit, wine, fish, coal, wood pulp, flightless birds, cups of tea, middle-distance runners and other people's film industries."

• "There is a national Parliament in Wellington, which looks like the hats in the Devo clip Whip It, although very little of any importance has ever occurred there. The country works a lot better during the weekends than it does during the week."

• "The country's most famous pop singer, best-known opera star, most famous short story writer, greatest novelist and most consistent world champion athlete are all women. They're not allowed in the All Blacks as yet, but don't be fooled. It's just a matter of time."

• "During the early 1980s, the New Zealand economy was put in the hands of finance ministers due to a filing error, and authorities are still looking for the black box. A social democracy with only one previous owner was asset-stripped and replaced by a series of franchises. Even rugby sides stopped being called Canterbury, Wellington, Otago and Auckland and were instead given the names of animals, colours and weather conditions."

• "New Zealand remains the most beautiful country in the world. There's no question about this. You can go to any part of it with confidence, at any time of year, with the possible exception of Hawera at Christmas, Otautau in August and Taihape in a stiff westerly."

- Taken from New Zealand, A User's Guide, by John Clarke.