Keeping it in the family

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• Rebecca Davis, Janet Andrewartha, Robert Coleby and Conrad Coleby. Photo by Daniel Grant

The last time film and stage veteran Robert Coleby acted with his son was more than 30 years ago.

A baby was needed for an episode of Australian sci-fi series Timelapse and at six months, young Conrad fitted the bill.

“I said yes, but he’s got to have a credit.”

But when it comes to a speaking part, Black Swan Theatre’s Other Desert Cities is the first time the two have worked together on stage. Fittingly they are playing father and son.

“It’s really great to see him, he is a very fine actor,” Coleby said of his son.

Our interview had a touch of the cognitive dissonances about it; the man in front of me was so familiar he could have been an old friend, but we’d never met.

Blue eyes

Coleby’s blue eyes had hearts aflutter in shows such as Patrol Boat, Rush, City Homicide and Chopper Squad—he was even in an episode of Skippy.

And he’s played so many doctors—in shows such as The Young Doctors, A Country Practice and All Saints—he could probably give medical advice.

He’s in Perth to play Republican patriarch Lyman Wyeth in Jon Robin Baitz’ award-winning play about a family in crisis.

As he talks of his role, the boyish 66 year old transforms into the elder statesman and confidant of Ronald Regan that is his character, and the Aussie accent slips away.

“Ronnie is 20 years older than me,” he drawls, adding the Republicans of the time were more fun than today’s neocons.

The play is about family secrets set to be exposed in a tell-all memoir about a devastating event Wyeth and his wife would rather stayed buried.

Coleby was born Robert Taylor in the UK in 1947, but when he first started treading the boards professionally his famous Hollywood namesake was very much alive and Actors Equity wouldn’t allow him to use the same name.

“I could only find one other Coleby [in the phone book] so I had that.”

He’s still Taylor legally because his father was so upset about the change, and Coleby says he’s been challenged by shop assistants who’ve recognised him and been suspicious about the strange surname on his credit card.

Adopted

“Conrad said it was weird,” he says, “because of the different names, people asked if he was adopted.”

His son has now adopted the same stage surname.

Coleby senior once had aspirations of being an artist which were discouraged by a teacher, but he took it up again recently after some life drawing classes with Freo legend Ian de Souza.

He’s since had a number of very successful exhibitions.

And while he’s critical of some teachers, it was a poetry teacher who inspired him to take up acting.

“He gave me a love of language. If I hadn’t met him I’d be a dustman,” Coleby jokes.

Other Desert Cities is on July 20 to August 4 at the Heath Ledger Theatre in Northbridge.

by JENNY D’ANGER

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