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Famous farewell for Kerry Packer

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Sydney (Australia)
Rupert Murdoch
Kerry Packer

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- The rich, the famous and the merely curious gathered in Sydney Friday for a State memorial service commemorating the life of Australia's richest man, Kerry Packer.

Packer, who died December 26 last year aged 68, was a larger than life personality who ruled a $5 billion media and gambling empire with an iron hand.

Among those attending the service, which began at 12:30 p.m. (1:30 a.m. GMT), were actor Tom Cruise and his heavily pregnant fiancee Katie Holmes, golfer Greg Norman and actor Russell Crowe.

The Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, spoke at the service, which was held at the Sydney Opera House and televised live on Packer's Nine network.

Howard told those gathered Packer had a "remarkable capacity to ensure his wealth and privilege did not separate him from the man in the street."

"He lived a full Australian life. He was a larrikin, but he was also a gentleman," Howard said.

Packer's son James -- who has taken over control of the Packer business empire -- described his father as his mentor. "That was my greatest fortune."

In a tribute, actor Crowe read the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling.

A total of 1,800 people attended the memorial, including 400 members of the public who successfully registered with a hotline to attend the government-funded memorial.

A contingent of protesters earlier staged a demonstration outside the Sydney venue to voice their displeasure at the use of public funds to farewell the billionaire businessman.

Apart from his business interests, Packer was known as Australia's biggest gambler at racetracks and at casinos around the world. He was also passionate about sports, playing, golf cricket and polo.

He revolutionized sports television coverage in Australia and throughout the world, with his backing for day-night cricket, golf, tennis and various football codes.

His business empire, built around Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd (PBL), includes television, magazines, Internet-related enterprises, Melbourne's Crown Casino and the Burswood Casino in Perth. His interests extended to ski resorts, beef cattle properties, petrochemicals, property investment, resources and engineering.

More recently, he had been developing two casinos in Macau with Hong Kong-based businessman Stanley Ho. They are due to open in 2006 and 2007.

Packer had been in poor health for years, after heart attacks in 1990 and 1995. He underwent a kidney transplant in 2000, with a kidney donated by his helicopter pilot.

In 1990, while playing polo in Sydney, he suffered a heart attack that left him dead for about eight minutes. Packer was revived and famously later told reporters that he had "been to the other side, and there was nothing there."

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