Proud actor Gus Mercurio writes for us about his superstar son, giving a very personal and intimate look at the passions which drove Paul to dance.
The road to the stage at Melbourne's World Congress Centre, where this year's Australian Film Industry Awards were presented, began more than 20 years ago for the presenter, Paul Mercurio.

It was then that the star of Strictly Ballroom--the film that was this year's winner of the Best Movie award--started to dance at the John Curtin High School in Fremantle, Western Australia.

Paul appeared on life's stage at Swan Hill, Victoria, on the 31st day of March, 1963. He had decided he was ready to greet the world, and did so without relying on anyone's help.

Paul was our second child. I was at that time still a practicing chiropractor. It was BA: Before Acting.

Early on, Paul was overshadowed somewhat by his younger brother Michael, who was more outgoing. Paul was quietly confident and self-assured.

He was also a loyal brother to his sister, Connie, and two younger brothers, Mike and Joe. They all got along well and they still do.

We lived in Melbourne before Paul, his mother Jean, brothers and sister, moved to Ballarat and then to Perth as our marriage was falling apart.

The blame for the breakdown and for its not healing would rest with me.

Many marriages have a history of arguments, fights, drinking, hurting people and smashing things in the house--such as I remember happening between my mother and father.

Thankfully, this did not happen with Jean and me, which spared the children the spectacle of brawling parents.

But there was hurt, and still to this day, as I write these words, tears come to my eyes when I think of what Jean told me Paul had asked her when they were living in Ballarat, in the home where Jean was born. I was living in Melbourne and went to Ballarat on the weekends.

During the week, Paul had opened one of the dresser drawers. He didn't see any of my things--socks, underwear, that sort of thing. He asked his mother, "Doesn't Daddy live with us any more?" I now ache for his hurt then.

But their mother brought the children through this bad time and is responsible for their success. Things were not easy for the family in Perth. I wasn't able to help as much as I should have. Jean had to work and take social service help. She pawned her wedding ring.

None of this makes me feel any better, but it has to be told so that we can see where Paul has come from.

He didn't have it easy. Nor did any of the children. The first house they moved into was with the help of Jean's brother, when it was thought that I might relent and move to Perth to be with them.

When this didn't happen, they went to a Coolbellup Housing Commission unit and the children grew up in the Fremantle area--not a good spot for a boy to become a dancer, unless you needed to dance yourself out of trouble. Which the boys, and even their sister, had to do at times.

But there were also times when they didn't dance--just planted their feet and battled it out.

They mostly held their own. Possibly my genes came to the fore, or some of what I was able to teach them--in a physical as well as a mental sense!

The boys and Connie would recall the physical games we used to play--the rough and tumble, chase and get caught, only to fight and get away again. Paul was always the most agile.

And the mental side of it: not to let anyone beat them at anything, even if it was pushing peanuts down the road with your nose. If they got into a scrap and the other guy got a meal, they were taught to make sure they got a sandwich. To have a go. To be their own person.

Paul learned these lessons well. And he learned his mother's lessons well too. Such things as compassion, awareness of others and their rights, and to be tolerant, to love each other and stick together, to have values, to be honest and open, to appreciate the good and be in touch with life.

All this went into the making of Paul, who, along the way, came to dance. Not in a big way, but because his sister was doing it and needed someone to partner her in class. He had a feel for it and stayed. He appeared on stage at school concerts, liked it, then left. He was nine when he started, 12 when he quit.

Paul's Rocky Road to Fame
by Gus Mercurio

Woman's Day
14 December 1992

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