The Native American actor August Schellenberg who was of Mohawk and Swiss-German ancestry and who starred in all three of the Free Willy films, died in Texas at age 77 after a long battle with cancer.
Schellenberg was born on July 25, 1936 and he lived originally in Montreal, Quebec until 1967 when he moved to Toronto, Ontario. August then relocated to Dallas, Texa with his wife, the actress Joan Karasevich. He had three daughters, two of them with Joan.
He initially learned his craft at the National Theatre School of Canada, where he graduated in 1966. His first job after leaving the school was a six-month tour of Ontario performing for high school students as a part of the Crest Theatre Hour Company.
After paying his dues in theatre he made the transition to cinema with his first film role in the 1971 film Rip-Off. He did voice work for the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal and in the 1990s he worked in Free Willy as Randolph Johnson, a role he reprised a further two times in the sequels.
Another acting role that he was well known for, was that of the Lakota Sioux holy man, Sitting Bull, in the television film Crazy Horse; he was nominated for an Emmy after his work as a result. He played also Chief Powhatan in the 2005 Terrence Malick’s film The New World. He worked in Disney’s 2006 film Eight Below and in 2011 he worked on two episodes of the TV show Stargate Universe.
His last film role was in the 2012 film The Last Movie as Samuel Booker.
Schellenberg had said that his most memorable role, and personal favourite, was that of Chief Sitting Bull in the television film Crazy Horse. The actor had been nominated for seven awards out which he won two. The Gemini Best Performance by a Lead Actor in a Single Dramatic Program Award for his work in The Prodigal and The Genie Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role Award for his work in Black Robe.
When August was not acting or pursuing his many hobbies he used his skills as an amateur chef to cook for his family and friends. He also participated as a guest chef at many celebrity cook-offs in support of various charities.
The actor also taught acting seminars in Toronto and held motivational workshops across North America. In 2012, he starred as King Lear in the William Shakespeare play with an all-aboriginal cast at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
He took great pride in his heritage and supported several charities, such as The American Indian College Fund and The National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation. He was one of the few actors of Native American ancestry to have a successful career in not only the theatre, but cinema and television. And Schellenberg is listed on the website Native.Net alongside Jay Silverheels as being one of the best known Native Americans on screen.
In an industry that has always fallen back on “Indian” stereotypes in film characterisations, August played roles that deviated with how “white” filmmakers allowed Native Americans to be portrayed on film.
August Schellenberg the Native American star of all three Free Willy films, died peacefully on Thursday surrounded by his family and friends.
By Michael Smith