Being the archetype of a working-class Australian with a distinctive broad and gravelly accent, weather-worn face and a no-nonsense style kept Bill Hunter in demand as an actor until the very end.

He got his break in 1959 when Hollywood legends made the movie "On the Beach" in his hometown of Melbourne.

Hunter appeared in the quirky trio "Muriel's Wedding," ''The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "Strictly Ballroom." He found his most youthful audience as the voice of the dentist who captured the clown fish star of the hit 2003 animated feature "Finding Nemo."

Most recently, he narrated a documentary on Australia's natural disasters this year, and has two upcoming films.

The prolific star on Australian movie and television screens died of cancer late Saturday in a Melbourne hospice surrounded by family and friends, his manager Mark Morrissey said. Hunter was 71. Colleagues who had recently worked with him were surprised he had been sick.

"Bill was much-loved, a gentleman, an inspiration to fellow actors, a journeyman and a rogue," Morrissey said.

Director Baz Luhrmann described Hunter in a statement last week as "the go-to iconic actor to synthesize quintessential Australian-ness."

The BBC's Sydney correspondent Nick Bryan wrote in 2008 that "Hunter is to Australian films what ravens are to the Tower of London. Without his portly presence, such films would be doomed to fall."

Prime Minister Julia Gillard paid tribute Sunday to a national icon who played a key role in defining Australian culture over five decades on screen and stage.

Hunter's weather-worn face has become almost omnipresent on Australian screens since he first appeared as an extra in 1957 in "The Shiralee," a British-made movie set in Australia.

His real break came as a stunt man when Hollywood made "On the Beach" in Melbourne. The movie about survivors of a nuclear war starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire.

"He watched Gregory Peck do 27 takes and thought: 'A mug could do that,'" Hunter's former wife Rhoda Roberts told Sydney's The Daily Telegraph newspaper last week.

Hunter summed up his own approach to acting during a recent interview to promote his upcoming horse-racing movie, "The Cup."

"As long as the director told me where to stand and what to say, I was happy. Anyone who says there is any more to it than that is full of (expletive)," Hunter said in a quote released Sunday by his manager.

Australia's National Film and Sound Archive head of film programming Quentin Turnour said Hunter followed in the lineage of unpolished Australian actors Chips Rafferty, who died in 1971, and John Meillon, who died in 1989. Australian audiences loved to see themselves in the laconic and gruff characters with soft hearts that they played, Turnour said.

"He's so iconically Australian. He turns typical, minimalist Australian gestures into a lot of emotional expression," Turnour said.

Hunter was born Feb. 27, 1940, and raised in rural Victoria state in Australia's southeast. He was the son of a struggling country pub owner who eventually went broke. Hunter told Melbourne's The Sunday Age newspaper in 1994 that he left school at the age of 13 to become a cowboy, known in Australia as a drover, guiding cattle herds across Victoria.

He began building his career in the 1960s in Australian television crime dramas in which he specialized as hard characters who were usually policemen or criminals.

A gregarious hard drinker with an endearing knack of recalling names of people who had expected to be forgotten, Hunter was universally popular in the movie industry in which he became a stalwart with few peers.

An early career highlight came when he played a newsreel cameraman in the Phillip Noyce-directed movie about the media and politics in Australia in the 1950s, "Newsfront." Hunter won the Australian Film Industry's best actor award for 1978 for the role, the first of three such Australian equivalents of an Oscar that he earned.

He also won acclaim for his roles as a doomed army major in Peter Weir's 1981 World War I drama "Gallipoli," a meddling dance judge in Luhrmann's 1992 romantic comedy "Strictly Ballroom," father of the bride in P.J. Hogan's "Muriel's Wedding" and an open-minded mechanic in the company of drag queens in Stephan Elliott's "Priscilla."

The two comedies "Muriel's Wedding" and "Priscilla" were made at the same time in 1994 in different parts of Australia and required Hunter to have different length hair, a beard in one and to be clean shaven in the other, The Internet Movie Database says.

Hunter also had minor roles in Luhrmann's 2008 epic "Australia" and in the U.S.-Australian television miniseries co-production "The Pacific" released last year.

Hunter recently narrated a television documentary about this year's floods and cyclone that were Australia's most expensive natural disasters. He plays the legendary Australian racehorse trainer Bart Cummings and a cameo role in two movies to be screened later this year.

"Red Dog," a family film based on a true Outback story, appears in Australian theaters in August. "The Cup" is scheduled to be released in Australia in October.