New Zealand movie, TV actor Grant Tilly dead at 74

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Grant Tilly

Grant Tilly

New Zealand movie, TV and stage actor Grant Tilly, voice of the Oscar-nominated ani­mated West­ern short The Frog, The Dog, And The Devil, died Tues­day in Welling­ton of can­cer. He was 74.

Tilly became ill with prostate and kid­ney can­cer in 2005. He had been bedrid­den at home since January.

Pro­duced in 1986 by the New Zealand National Film Unit, The Frog, the Dog, and the Devil won the Grand Prize for Bob Sten­house at that year’s Ottawa Inter­na­tional Ani­ma­tion Festival.

Tilly helped found Wellington’s Circa The­atre in 1976.

His act­ing career included per­for­mances in a run of acclaimed New Zealand plays, includ­ing Foreskin’s Lament, The Day­light Athe­ist, and Joy­ful and Tri­umphant. His screen career also hardly lacked for vari­ety: he played pedan­tic bureau­crats (Glid­ing On), cow-cockies (Carry Me Back), mis­sion­ar­ies (The Gov­er­nor), vil­lain­ous Ger­man offi­cers (Sav­age Islands) and leg­endary Kiwi artists (Erua).

Tilly was born in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia on Decem­ber 12, 1937, though he was only there a month before his hol­i­day­ing New Zealand par­ents returned to Welling­ton. Later, he trained as a teacher in Welling­ton and Dunedin, then began work­ing at the local edu­ca­tion board, at a spe­cial unit based around train­ing and teach­ing art and craft.

As the 1960s began, Tilly won a gov­ern­ment bur­sary to study child drama in Eng­land. On his return, he began tutor­ing at an act­ing school run by Nola Mil­lar, who later founded the New Zealand Drama School. Tilly would con­tinue his asso­ci­a­tion with var­i­ous incar­na­tions of the drama school until 1988, bal­anc­ing work as an act­ing tutor with per­for­mances for stage, screen and radio.

Tilly first appeared on screen in one-off TV plays, includ­ing well-reviewed com­edy The Tired Man (1967), and the Fel­tex Award-winning Green Gin Sun­set (1969). In Sun­set, Tilly starred as a newly wed­ded mer­chant sea­man choos­ing between set­tling down, or head­ing back to sea.

He also worked with writer/actor Joe Musaphia on live children’s show Joe’s World, which saw him and Musaphia in front of the cam­eras, mix­ing comic ad-libbing with edu­ca­tional con­tent. In 1969, Tilly joined the cast of early sketch and music show In View of the Cir­cum­stances, writ­ten by Musaphia and Roger Hall. Tilly recalls that the cre­ative team were instructed to avoid men­tions of “the Queen, reli­gion, or the RSA.” He would also work with Hall (and John Clarke) on-stage in the ill-fated Brian Edwards Trav­el­ling Road Show.

In the 1970s, Tilly’s screen work began to sound a more seri­ous tune, though his nat­ural bent for under­stated com­edy would resur­face as the decade came to a close. Along­side work on a run of shorts, he had a small role as a doc­tor in Paul Maunder’s social real­ist drama Gone Up North for a While, and played union­ists in pio­neer­ing forestry town drama series Puke­manu and The Longest Win­ter.

The Longest Win­ter (1975), directed by Tony Isaac, dra­ma­tized the impact of the Great Depres­sion over three episodes. Tilly appeared in scenes based on the Queen Street riot of 1932, as real-life union­ist Jim Edwards.

Tilly sus­pected that his work in The Longest Win­ter won him a key role in his­tor­i­cal epic The Gov­er­nor. Tilly donned a cas­sock to play rev­erend Henry Williams as he tried to medi­ate between Gov­er­nor George Grey and Hone Heke.

Tilly’s name was often asso­ci­ated with the work of play­wright Roger Hall; he appeared in many of Hall’s plays, often at Circa The­atre in Welling­ton. In 1976, when Hall wrote his break­through hit play Glide Time — a tale of pub­lic ser­vants doing very lit­tle –he had Tilly in mind for the role of store­man Jim. Tilly was busy on another play, though he found time to design the Glide Time set. Later, he got to play Jim in a one-hour TV adap­ta­tion, Glide Time (1978).

By the time that Glid­ing On began its long TV run in 1981, actor Michael Haigh had made the role his own. Instead, Tilly spent time play­ing Wally, “one of those awful lit­tle self-important bureaucrats.”

On stage, Tilly had acted in Hall’s sec­ond adult play Mid­dle Age Spread, the tale of a head­mas­ter hav­ing an affair and a mid-life cri­sis. In 1979, Tilly got to star in the big-screen adap­ta­tion. The result won rave reviews in local news­pa­pers, while Vari­ety praised Tilly’s per­for­mance, com­par­ing him to “an antipodean Woody Allen.”

Tilly also co-starred in the Hall-penned Bed Time, a sit­com about a woman who starts earn­ing more than her hus­band. But the Bed Time pilot was never broad­cast. Under the title Con­ju­gal Rights, it later became a suc­cess­ful stage show and com­edy on Eng­lish Tele­vi­sion, sans Tilly. He would later act on stage in Hall’s one man tale C’mon Black.

By the late 1970s, Tilly was pop­ping up on screen all over the place. Aside from for­got­ten 1978 sketch show The Les Dev­erett Vari­ety Hour, he appeared on the big screen as a repressed accoun­tant in small-town tale Skin Deep, a Crown pros­e­cu­tor in Beyond Rea­son­able Doubt, and a Yan­kee assas­sin in Dan­ger­ous Orphans.

Three years after Mid­dle Age Spread came Tilly’s sec­ond big-screen star­ring role, yokels com­edy Carry Me Back. Tilly and Kelly John­son (Good­bye Pork Pie) played farm­ers who head into the city for a rugby game, then have to secretly trans­port their recently deceased father back to the farm. Tilly got a clas­sic scene where his char­ac­ter finally unleashes his side of the story to the dead father sit­ting next to him in the car.

Aus­tralian critic David Strat­ton praised the well-developed char­ac­ters and Tilly’s ver­sa­til­ity, argu­ing that he was hardly rec­og­niz­able from Mid­dle Age Spread. That same year, Tilly also played for­got­ten co-star to news­reader Angela D’Audney in one-off TV play The Venus Touch.

In 1986, Tilly joined the pow­er­house cast of fan­tasy series Cuckoo Land, an early TV show writ­ten by author Mar­garet Mahy. Tilly played a con­ser­va­tion­ist who lives in a tree, and the show’s fan­tas­ti­cal set­tings meant that he did most of his act­ing in front of a blue screen.

Two years later, he starred in serio-comic tele­vi­sion series Bert and Maisy, based on the play by Robert Lord. Tilly played Bert, with Alice Fraser as his on-screen wife. It was one of Tilly’s less enjoy­able expe­ri­ences, as he felt pres­sures from above to shave off eccen­tric­i­ties that made the char­ac­ters interesting.

In 1989 Tilly was given a Lis­tener TV award for his por­trayal of artist Toss Wool­las­ton in Rawiri Paratene-penned tele-play Erua. He argued that it was “an awe­some respon­si­bil­ity” to play some­one who was still alive.

Tilly’s work as an off-screen nar­ra­tor dated back until at least 1971, and included early cur­rent affairs show Sur­vey, real­ity show Emer­gency Heroes and movie romance Flight of the Alba­tross.

Though Tilly con­tin­ued to act occa­sion­ally on-screen — he co-starred in 2009 short Roof Rat­tling, and played hos­pi­tal head Den­nis Bon­ham in TV movie Clare, based on the cer­vi­cal can­cer exper­i­ments at Auck­land National Women’s Hos­pi­tal — he was increas­ingly devot­ing time to other artis­tic pur­suits. Tilly illus­trated scenes of Welling­ton for The Evening Post from 1976 to 1982; when his eye­sight began to fail, he began devel­op­ing dis­tinc­tive three-dimensional art­works, usu­ally in wood, and pop-up-style por­traits of houses and build­ings, as well as of native birds and wildlife.

Com­pleat Cityscapes, a book con­tain­ing the whole series of Welling­ton scenes, will be launched on May 11.
Even in later years when his health and eye­sight were fail­ing he still had tremen­dous energy and he did some ter­rific sculp­tures and paintings.

Tilly was mar­ried twice. He had three sons by his first wife, Fay, and a daugh­ter, Sasha, by his sec­ond wife, Ruth Jeffery.

Tilly’s funeral is expected to take place Monday.

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