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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