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Home And Away milestone: Alf is 80!

Soap star and Aussie actor Ray Meagher celebrates a big Summer Bay birthday
Ray Meagher standing in front of a bunch of balloons, throwing confetti in the airPictures: Alana Landsberry

He’s famous for having played stubborn but soft-hearted Summer Bay stalwart Alf Stewart on Home And Away for 37 years, but veteran actor Ray Meagher isn’t one to think about his own longevity. In fact, when we chat to him, he’s almost forgotten that he turns 80 today.

“Thanks for reminding me,” laughs Ray. “But I don’t see it as any big deal. I feel very grateful and fortunate I’ve lasted this long. And when I look back on my misspent youth, I think, ‘God knows how!’”

After starting life on a sheep and cattle station in rural Queensland, Ray later moved to Sydney, where Home And Away gave him a global audience. His journey is a remarkable one. It’s plump with good times, as well as moments that are more challenging and marked by tragedy.

Ray Meagher sitting on a chair in front of a bunch of colourful helium balloons

When he was just eight, Ray lost his mother Patricia and he was later sent to boarding school at Marist College in Brisbane. Seven years later, his father Bill died.

“I can remember feeling pretty bloody down,” Ray reflects. “But you get distracted by life and what’s going on. Life moves on and you move on with it. I didn’t moan, ‘Why has this happened to me?’ I just sort of thought, ‘We’ve got to get on with it!’”

His older brother Colin took Ray under his wing. He was “a father figure” to the grieving youngster, and his wife Pat, who essentially raised Ray in his parents’ absence. When Colin passed away a little over 10 years ago, it hit the actor hard.

Ray as Alf on Home And Away
Ray has starred as Alf for 37 years.

“He was my hero – just absolutely fantastic,” says Ray. “As was Pat, who’s still with us, thank God. But when Col went, yeah… I miss him to this day.”

There have been other challenges. Four years ago, ambulances rushed Ray to hospital for emergency heart surgery.

“I was just walking up a hill one day and felt a little shortness of breath, rather than pain,” Ray recalls. “I thought, ‘What the bloody hell is going on? This is ridiculous.’”

At the time, Ray and his wife Gilly had their bags packed for a road trip back to Queensland. But his cardiologist quickly vetoed that and, in Ray’s words, “got the chainsaw out”.

Was he a bit worried about the surgery at the time?

Ray pointing and smiling at the camera beside a cake and a bunch of balloons as confetti falls around him

“Yes is the honest answer to that,” he says. “But in the fair dinkum department, I’m a bit philosophical about those things. You’ve got to trust somebody whose job it is to try to bring you through. And lately everything’s good health-wise. I’m in pretty good nick for a young bloke of nearly 80.”

While it’s unthinkable to imagine anyone else but Ray playing beloved Alf, it wouldn’t have panned out this way if he’d continued to pursue a life in sport. Rugby infatuated Ray growing up.

“I like to think the classroom suffered because I was so involved in sport,” he says. “The reality probably is that I was just a dumb bugger – no good in the classroom and a bit lucky in the sporting arena.”

More than a bit lucky. He played for Queensland against France and had a trial for the Wallabies. Looking back, Ray says his sporting years were “definite highlights”.

Ray Meagher with Home And Away co-stars on set
Ray with Kate Ritchie (left), Dennis Coard, who played Michael, and Debra Lawrance as Pippa.

Another highlight? When producers cast him as three different characters in the iconic drama Prisoner. It was producer Ian Bradley’s faith in him that gave Ray the confidence to continue with acting and not return to the farm, as he thought he may have to, “with my tail between my legs”.

“I know there are actors who are every bit as good as me, or better, who have had pretty rough careers in terms of continuity of work,” Ray says. “I couldn’t have wished for a better career, really. I’ve loved it.”

Ray is proud that Alf is so loved. The role has made him a household name and kept him employed for more than three decades.

Ray Meagher as Alf walking his on-screen daughter down the aisle on her wedding day
The proud dad walked daughter Roo down the aisle a decade ago.

“Alf is a pretty archetypal Australian character of his time,” the actor says. “He has his moments, he’ll fly off the handle and you won’t die wondering what he’s thinking of you – but he does have a heart of gold and will be unbelievably loyal to the people around him.”

Ray has “deep affection” for his Home And Away co-stars, including Georgie Parker (who plays his daughter Roo), Emily Symons (Marilyn Chambers) and Ada Nicodemou (Leah Patterson), as well as Kate Ritchie, who played Sally Fletcher for 20 years from 1988, when she was just nine.

Ray hugging Judy Nunn
Judy Nunn played Alf’s second wife Ailsa.

While praising Kate’s successful radio career, Ray says it’s a “tragedy” she’s not doing more acting. “She was a natural. Even as a youngster, she’d come on and grab at your heartstrings or do whatever was required.”

Given Ray’s milestone birthday, dare we ask whether retirement could be on the cards any time soon?

Ray shakes his head. “I guess I’ll get up one morning and think, ‘You know, maybe it’s time.’ But look, I feel blessed. I feel honoured. I keep waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Righto, the game’s up, mate! Off you go. Get back to the bush.’ But so far, it hasn’t happened.”

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