Prisoner actress and HIV activist Anne Phelan OAM has died.

The entertainment industry veteran—who was a longtime patron of HIV/AIDS support group Positive Women Victoria—passed away on Sunday, screenhub confirmed, after battling ill health for several years.

The ABC reported that she was aged 71, while Fairfax media outlets put her age at 75.


A mainstay of Australian screen and stage for more than 50 years, Phelan had roles on a range of TV programs including A Country Practice, Bellbird, Blue Heelers, Neighbours and Winners and Losers.

Her film credits included Charlie & Boots, The Craic, The Devil’s PlaygroundHard Knocks and current box office drawcard, Ride Like a Girl.

In 1988, she won that year’s AFI Award for Best Actress in a Miniseries for Poor Man’s Orange, while in the year 2000 she was awarded an AFI Award for Best Actress in a Television Drama for her role in the ABC-TV series Something in the Air. 

But she was arguably best known for her role as ‘top dog’ Myra Desmond in the iconic Channel Ten prison drama Prisoner, known as Prisoner Cell Block H in Britain.

Phelan, who played the role from 1980 to 1985, has been mourned by Prisoner fans worldwide, with devotees of the cult television program paying tribute to the actress online. 

Barry Parker, an organiser of the popular Prisoner fan group Partners in Crime, posted a tribute to the late actress on the Partners in Crime Facebook page.

“All of us at Partners in Crime would like to send our condolences to the family and friends of Anne Phelan,” he wrote.

“Myself and [group co-organiser] Maria were fortunate to spend a little time with Anne in February. Rest peacefully and thank you for entertaining us for all these years.”

Fellow fan Nielson Hendry replied that Phelan was “very charismatic, funny, friendly and humble, and she’ll be dearly missed by those she’s left behind”.

Melbourne pop singer Peter Wilson also paid tribute to Phelan on the Partners in Crime page, expressing sadness at her passing but recalling his delight at having met her.

“That’s really sad. I met her once very briefly and she called me ‘darling’ in her gravelly voice,” he wrote. “I thought she was lovely.”

Gay media personality and former JOY 94.9 radio presenter Leo Stubbing recalled Phelan’s positive energy and her kindness to Prisoner fans.

“In 2011, I had just started working with JOY 94.9 FM and we enlisted some stars from Neighbours, City Homicide and Prisoner to help us at the JOY stand at the Midsumma Carnival,” Stubbing wrote. 

“I remember meeting Anne—she was such a friendly, warm and loving person. She took the time to pose for photos with everyone, also signing things for fans.”

Phelan also drew plaudits for her community work. 

A longstanding member of a member of Actors for Refugees, she received an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in 2007 for her “service to the arts as an actress, and to the community, particularly through support for women living with the HIV virus and for asylum seekers and refugees”.

In 2016, she received the Equity Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Anne was simply one of the best humans,” Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA) Equity federal president Chloe Dallimore said in a statement marking Phelan’s death. 

“She was a lauded actor for her incredible body of work in our industry, but most importantly, a woman with a huge zest for life and a deep love for her union.”

Phelan’s last major public appearance was at the Prisoner 40th anniversary event held in Melbourne on 24 February.

The event, organised by Prisoner actress Val Lehman, brought a range of Prisoner cast members together with several hundred fans to celebrate 40 years since the show debuted.

A fundraiser for Phelan’s  beloved Positive Women Victoria, as well as Australia Zoo, the event raised over $33,000 for the joint beneficiaries, Lehman announced on 7 April. 

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