‘Free Willy’ Actor August Schellenberg Walks On
Emmy-Nominated Mohawk Actor August “Augie” Schellenberg, who was known for his roles as Sitting Bull, Chief Powhatan, Geronimo and most recently, King Lear, walked on August 15 at the age of 77 due to complications from cancer.
As a 1966 graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, Schellenberg had graced the acting world in such theatrical roles as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire; Starbuck in The Rainmaker; Oscar in The Odd Couple and movie roles in Free Willy I, II, and III; Going the Distance and Terrence Malick’s The New World with Wes Studi, Colin Farrell and Christian Bale.
Not stopping at theater and film, Schellenberg played multiple television roles. He was in Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee; Walker, Texas Ranger; and Crazy Horse. Schellenberg’s most recent television role was his Emmy-nominated portrayal of Sitting Bull in Dick Wolf’s HBO production of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, directed by Yves Simoneau and starring Adam Beach, Aidan Quinn, and Anna Paquin.
In 2012, Schellenberg fulfilled a life’s dream to portray King Lear in an all-aboriginal casted production of the show at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. In addition to his Emmy nomination, Schellenberg has received a Nellie Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, an Eagle Spirit Award and multiple Genie Awards.
Schellenberg will be missed by those he worked with in the film community.
“It is a great loss to our acting community as well as a great loss to the world at large,” said Cherokee actor Wes Studi, who worked with Schellenberg more than once. “My condolences go to the family. He and I worked for the first time together on The New World and then again on Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee where he was nominated for an Emmy.
“We got to be friends on a good level during The New World and we played around with ideas of putting a show together like The Odd Couple. Of course, we won't ever get to do that. He was a lot of fun to talk to,” he said.
“I was just so fortunate to have known and worked with Augie,” said Steven Heape, of Rich-Heape Films, who worked with Schellenberg on various projects and was with his family at the time of his passing. “He never had time for people who could not remember their lines. He always said ‘I want to be remembered as a friend, who would be on time, and as someone who could always remember his lines.’ He was just a fantastic person and he touched a lot of lives.”
Lou Aytes, a family friend and the artist who sculpted a bronze bust of Schellenberg as Sitting Bull, also remembers a man that loved being on stage.
“We met at a restaurant; he was going to sit for me afterwards. But as soon as he realized I was sketching him, he took a pose without any direction from me. He was the perfect model that couldn't have been any better. He was an immediate friend. I had the opportunity to go to his home a few times; it was amazing to see all the collectibles he had from the work over his lifetime,” he said.
“There is an interesting story about the costume he wore as Sitting Bull In Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Aytes said. “He told me that when he went into the costume room for them to make him something for his role as Sitting Bull, they said, ‘We don't know what it should look like. Tell us, and we will make it for you.’
“He saw a costume on a hanger, he said, ‘that is it.’ He tried it on and it fit perfectly. He asked, ‘Who wore this?’ They told him, ‘Chief Dan George wore it.’ The irony is that Chief Dan George was his acting mentor. He had no idea Chief Dan George had worn the costume. And that is also what he wore for the sculpture that I created.”
In a January 2010 interview on Native Trailblazers, Schellenberg shared how his life in acting had started after reading a Time Magazine article in Montreal.
“I picked up a copy of Time Magazine in Montréal and read about their National Theatre School. I had never been in a play or let alone even seen one,” Schellenberg said. He auditioned and was accepted three years later.
During the interview, he also joked about how for years in the industry, Native roles were not played by Native actors.
“I was in Hollywood many years ago, a couple of old-timers said ‘You’re an actor,’ and I said yeah. They said, ‘You’ve got long hair in braids, you’re an Indian?’ I said yeah. They said, ‘We used to play Indians, me and my buddy here in the old days. He’s a Jew and I’m an Italian, they used to call me the Wapaho’s and they called him the Shmohawks. I just broke up [laughing’,” he said.
He went on to talk about meeting his wife in theater school and having three children together. “Now we have three grandchildren,” he said Schellenberg in the interview. “It has been a wonderful life.”