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Andrew L. Urban traces David Hannay’s professional and private life, and below, David’s brother Charles Hannah pays tribute to him – and explains the seeming anomaly of the spelling of their surname.

David Hannay is not easily categorised as having been either a failure or an unqualified success as a film and television producer. He is far from being a household name but some of his productions are, like The Man From Hong Kong (1975) and notably the seminal bikie-cop hit Stone (1974) made with first time director Sandy Harbutt. Therein also lies his greatest professional disappointment, he frequently said, that a second Harbutt feature never eventuated.

"a great encourager and stimulator"

Harbutt saw Hannay as a great encourager and stimulator. “When we started on the script in 1970 it seemed impossible that we could write an Australian film. It was an impossible dream, but David said, “Yes, you can do it.” He was Executive Producer, which could mean anything – in this case, it meant he did everything.” 


A particularly significant Hannay production was the Human Rights Award-winning South African anti-apartheid gangster movie, Mapantsula (1987), also with a first time director, Oliver Schmitz, who has always admired Hannay for taking such a public stand against apartheid.

That was made the year after his production of the fact-based World War II story, Death of a Soldier, directed by Philippe Mora, starring James Coburn and Bill Hunter.

His co-producer on Gross Misconduct (1993) was Richard Sheffield, who saw his great strength “as a line producer. I couldn’t fault him for looking after a film and getting it on time and on budget and getting it finished … a great hands-on producer, well organized and also a showman; he [loved] the business.”

"almost Machiavellian and sometimes threatening"

Writer Paul Harmon saw him as “almost Machiavellian and sometimes threatening. We had a supreme argument over casting on Shotgun Wedding (1992): we were like two bulls in a field and had moments of hating each other. However, once this was resolved, he was a delight.”

There have been times when Hannay was one of the Australian film industry’s untouchables, regarded as a ratbag, a maverick, and a heavy drug user; he was unofficially banned by (many) film bureaucrats. Later in his life he admitted to also being “politically stupid. I would be in screenings and I would light up a joint. I didn’t have to do that with people who clearly were offended by what I was doing. I certainly did not do myself any favours.”


But even through those days, he did get financial support for his projects; he’s been involved in the development and production of almost 50 films and countless hours of television in his 46 years as a producer.

Born in New Zealand and educated at Scots College, Wellington, he was first attracted to the theatre through his multi-talented father, Norman, who was Entertainment Officer for the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Rome. When he returned home, he reprised a play he had directed, and cast Hannay’s mother, Mary, in it. Hannay was eight, and impressed. In 1948 he followed his father into radio with children’s productions. 

It was his father’s connections established in Rome with filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini that prompted the interest in and eventual move to cinema. At the time, Hannay didn’t distinguish between Australian and New Zealand films and he readily identified with some of the iconic Australian films of the 1940s (Bush Christmas, The Overlanders, Eureka Stockade).

But Norman – apparently a charming man for all his aggro faults - had loved ‘being an Italian’. He would have preferred to stay in Italy and be part of the artistic regeneration of the country that he loved. The last place he wanted to be was New Zealand, but was dragged back to New Zealand by the family – for the sake of the family. So he came home angry, which Hannay sensed even as a seven year old and he grew to believe that he was in large part responsible for that anger; his relationship with his father was thereafter a combination of fear and rage. 

The Man From Hong Kong

In his early teens, in 1953, his father was so worried about Hannay’s evident sexual aggression (he first had sex at age 9), his hair trigger temper and his propensity for depression that he sent young Hannay to a psychiatrist – with whom Hannay promptly fell in love, notwithstanding she was much older. So much older that she had personally known Freud. He had a tendency to get excessively emotionally attached to people, which was often overwhelming for both them and for him.

"the Maori warrior culture and the Scottish warrior culture"

Hannay saw himself as a New Zealand Scot, a volatile blend of two warrior cultures: the Maori warrior culture and the Scottish warrior culture. He was brought up to be a warrior. Violence was part of his life, and fear; he was constantly frightened of upsetting his father, of his extraordinary rages.

His father had been a boxing blue at university; Hannay also boxed for five years, so he could stand up to him. He told me once about “the first time that I actually decided to shape up to him. I’ll never forget the glint in his eyes – “Oh, you want to have a go!” – and that fist came straight at me. He broke my nose; you can still see it. The last time my father and I had a physical fight is when I was 25; he was 56 for God’s sake. A 56-year-old and a 25-year-old beating the shit out of each other! I thought, ‘I don’t have to do this anymore. This is stupid.’”

When Hannay ran away to sea, he went from one brutal environment to another, spending a couple of years as a merchant seaman, but he came to love it. He eventually left New Zealand and arrived in Sydney in 1958, to avoid becoming a ‘hard man’; he saw Australia as a place of light and openness – the opposite of New Zealand.

"four relationships which defined him"

At the tail end of his life, he reflected that there were four relationships which defined him: his father, his brother Charles Hannah (alternate spelling of family name), his wife Mary Moody and Sandy Harbutt. He met Sandy in 1967 at Channel Seven when they were both acting in on You Can’t See Around Corners. 

Hannay once described his life at the time as “a kaleidoscope of drugs, drag queens, prostitutes, crims, musos and a mounting pile of dead bodies. I was really enjoying myself. Then I bumped into Sandy again a couple of months later. He radiated good health and good fellowship. He was like the rescue boat coming for the drowning man. He was the right person, at the right moment. And, more than that, he turned me around and defined the rest of my life. He gave me inspiration and he tested me like no other person has since my father. I cleaned myself up.”

Hannay met Mary Moody at Channel 9 in 1971. By this stage, his professional life was in good shape, but his personal life was in disarray. They worked together for some months before getting together romantically - and have been together, personally and professionally, ever since. Hannay is survived by his brother Charles, sister Gillian, and Mary and their four children: Tony, 42, Miriam, 40, Aaron, 38 and Ethan, 34 (the boys named after key characters in one of Hannay’s favourite movies, John Ford’s The Searchers [1956]).

David’s brother Charles Hannah posted this farewell to David:

My dear brother, David Hannay passed away at 8.05pm, Sydney time on March 31.
While the tumor in his esophagus was eliminated by the aggressive chemo/radiation protocol he endured 18 months ago, the tumors on his liver were still there when he had his last scan a few weeks back. They hadn't spread, which was good, but he had been feeling very uncomfortable with fluid in his lungs and around the heart. He was taken to Bathurst hospital last weekend and was transferred to Sydney on Monday to have the fluid drained - a truly horrible time for him. 

Mary, with great support from their daughter, Miriam, spent most of the week trying to get him home and finally, they were able to do so on Friday. He was mostly incoherent in hospital but determined to get the hell out of there and during the long journey home by ambulance, he would sit bolt upright and demand to know where he was - in that forceful way we all loved about him. As soon as he got home, he became much more relaxed. 

All the kids were with him during his last few days doing a truly extraordinary job helping Mary deal with his palliative care needs, keeping the pain at bay and trying to make him comfortable. But his condition continued to deteriorate and it was clear that he had been holding on until he could be in his own environment at home, surrounded by his beloved family who were all with him at the end - lying on or beside him as he took his last breath. While it was terribly, terribly sad for them all, there was also great beauty in the way he left.

In July, it will be 30 years since David invited me to join him in the business of film and television production that has been such a large part of my life since. I will miss his ever present love and encouragement and his belief in me, and will be forever grateful to him for being the best big brother I could ever dream of having. I am also so very grateful to my sister in law, Mary Moody, the love of his life, and to his children, Tony, Miriam, Aaron and Ethan and their spouses for caring for him so beautifully these past few days so that he could go in peace.

He has been such a huge part of so many lives, as a passionately loyal friend, a mentor, a teacher and an inspiration, a storyteller and a powerful force of nature to the very end. We will all miss him.

PS: All the beautiful condolences that have been pouring in have reminded me of the 4 glorious days our sister, Gillian and I spent with David and Mary and the family late last year. We laughed so much my ribs hurt and I will never forget the moment when sitting on his front porch watching his grandchildren play, David turned to me and said "life doesn't get much better than this". This was despite the nasty chemo-induced discomfort he was feeling. He was, as I said earlier, an incredible teacher and an inspiration. I am deeply grateful to him for knowing that this was the time we should visit.

PPS: Ours is a Scottish family name with many spellings - with an "h" or a "y" at the end and with neither – originating from the days when few could read or write and those who could adopted different versions. While our branch of the family had been “Hannah” for many generations, our official clan name is Hannay and David replaced the "h" with a "y" soon after arriving in Sydney in 1958 and commencing work as an actor – motivated in part by his passion to stand on his own feet, without the need for his family’s support across the Tasman, and so he wouldn't be seen as being connected with (or benefiting from) the well known variety entertainer and movie actor, writer, director and producer, Pat Hanna.

Published April 3, 2014

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David Hannay

Born Wellington, New Zealand, June 23, 1939 – died Sydney, Australia, March 31, 2014 (74)

Andrew L. Urban's obituary of David Hannay appears in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3/4/2014

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