How could my big, strong TV star husband just wither away? Widow of Spartacus star Andy Whitfield reveals the heartache behind his death from cancer
Vashti Whitfield is sitting in the garden, explaining why her two young children get excited when a butterfly flutters past. ‘They call out ‘‘Hi Dad!’’ every time they see one,’ she says.
It is the legacy of their father Andy, who died aged 39 last September after an 18-month battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. He left seven-year-old Jesse and four-year-old Indigo with a beautiful image to remember him by.
‘In his final words to them, Andy said he had to go to sleep as his body didn’t work, that he was like a butterfly with broken wings, but he would always be with them, watching over them,’ says Vashti.
Not only did the timing of Andy’s illness seem so at odds with his happy home life as a loving husband and father but he had just found international fame. He was cast in the title role of the big-budget television remake of Spartacus, and the Welsh-born actor’s performance had captured the imagination of Hollywood.
Andy was preparing to shoot the second series when he was diagnosed and filming was put on hold while he fought the disease. It was a battle he chose to document with the help of award-winning documentary maker Lilibet Foster, who captured hours of intimate footage as Andy fought to get well; in turn, defiant, angry, scared and tearful as he confronted his mortality. ‘Andy believed that documenting his fight might help others,’ says Vashti.
The documentary is also a love story. Andy and Vashti, now 39, were in their early 20s when they were introduced by a mutual friend in London. Romance blossomed quickly: within three months they moved to Sydney after Vashti was offered work in a design agency.
They settled there, marrying in 2001. Jesse came along in May 2005 and Indigo two years later. Andy worked as an external engineer – ‘like a really hot Spider-Man, scaling buildings’ smiles Vashti – until, aged 30, he was scouted on the beach by a modelling agency. Work flooded in, followed by TV commercials, inspiring Andy to retrain as an actor.
In 2009, Andy was offered the title role in Spartacus. While it was to prove his breakthrough, the part was gruelling, requiring hours of training to hone his body into that of a warrior.
When, towards the end of filming, he began to suffer backache, Andy put it down to his training schedule. He consulted sports physicians but none could diagnose the problem. By early 2010 the pain was unbearable. ‘Sometimes he would lie on the floor howling like a woman giving birth,’ says Vashti.