Billy T James ranks as a key figure in the development of Kiwi comedy. Billy honed his talents as a singer and comedian on stages around the world, then bought them to a local TV audience on 80s show Radio Times. His self-titled comedy show was a major ratings hit, while movie classic Came a Hot Friday won him both awards and acclaim. Billy T is remembered for his infectious chuckle, black singlet and yellow towel.

He sang. He danced. He drew. He joked. His live shows never failed to sell out and crowds flocked around him whenever he was out in public. He enjoyed popularity and wealth on a scale that had never been seen before in New Zealand. Matt Elliott, in his book Billy T - The Life and Times of Billy T James
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Billy

2011, Subject

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Billy T: Te Movie

2011, Subject - Film

Following the bigscreen success of Topp Twins documentary Untouchable Girls comes another chronicle of a Kiwi entertainment legend: sometime vice cop, Taranaki bandito, giggling newsreader and crooner Billy T James. The film uses interviews and remastered footage to capture Billy T’s path from cabaret singer to fame, fan-clubs and eventual financial and bodily collapse. The documentary's director, Ian Mune, cast James in his Came a Hot Friday as the Māori-Mexican Tainuia Kid; and Te Movie co-producer Tom Parkinson played a big hand in making Billy T a TV star.

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Billy T and Me

2010, As: Various Roles

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Pukukata: The Last Laugh

2000, Subject

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Billy T James - A Daughter's Story

1997, Subject - Television

In this documentary Cherie James pays tribute to New Zealand’s best-loved entertainer, telling Billy T James story from a daughter’s perspective. Performers who worked with Billy in his showband The Maori Volcanics also share their memories, as do family members who reminisce about Billy's early life growing up in the Waikato. Cherie provides her perspective on the well-publicised arguments that occurred after his death and why it was so important for Billy to be buried beside his mother on the sacred Taupiri mountain overlooking Huntly.

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The Best of The Billy T James Collection

1992, Actor, Writer - Television

Billy T’s unique brand of humour is captured here at its affable, non-PC best in this compilation of skits from his popular 80s TV shows. There’s Te News (“... someone pinched all the toilet seats out of the Kaikohe Police Station ... now the cops have got nothing to go on!”) with Billy in iconic black singlet and yellow towel; a bro’s guide to home improvement; the first contact skits, and Turangi Vice. No target is sacred (God, The IRA) and there are classic spoofs of Pixie Caramel’s “last requests” and Lands For Bags’ “where’d you get your bag” ads.

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The Billy T James Collection - Episode Four

1992, Actor - Television

This posthumous series — produced by Ginette McDonald — collects segments from Billy T’s long running skit based comedy series. Some of his most cherished creations are here: the giggling Te News newsreader, Cuzzy in his black shorts, and the chief bemused by Captain Cook. Support comes from a seasoned cast including Peter Rowley, David Telford and Roy Billing (with cameos from Bob Jones and Barry Crump). Some of these skits are essentially elaborate setups for one line jokes but Billy T’s infectious warmth and good humour inevitably carry the day.

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The James Gang Rides Again

1990, Producer, Writer, Presenter - Television

New Zealand's much-loved comedian and entertainer Billy T James tells the story of his heart transplant operation at Greenlane Hospital, in 1989, and his subsequent recovery. The documentary, much of which is filmed at the hospital (sometimes even from bed, as Billy re-enacts his operation) also features five other patients who he became close to over the months while they waited for their hearts. Entertaining as well as educational, the film includes a musical number with Max Cryer, dressed as a surgeon, joined in song by Billy and Don Selwyn.

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Billy T Live

1990, Writer, Performer - Television

In April 1990, Billy Taitoko James came back from years of ill health, and made a triumphant return to performing his unique brand of music and comedy. It was a last hurrah for James, whose transplanted heart gave out on him the following year, but it's a worthy swansong. His unique brand of humour is captured here at its affable, non-PC, best, with Billy T giving everything he's got - every gag is rounded off with his trademark 'bro' laugh - for a loudly appreciative audience. Guests include Sir Howard Morrison. 

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The Billy T James Show (Sitcom) - Excerpts

1990, As: Billy T, Writer, Creator - Television

In these excerpts from his last TV series — a family based sitcom — Billy T has to deal with his radical older daughter who wants to get a moko, a teenage boy trying to smuggle beer into his younger daughter’s birthday party, a defamation writ, and another tribe becoming his landlord. There are varying degrees of help from his wife (Ilona Rodgers), his aggressively dim Australian brother-in-law (Mark Hadlow) and his daughter’s painfully politically correct pakeha boyfriend (Mark Wright), as well as cameos from Temuera Morrison, Martin Henderson and Blair Strang.

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The Leading Edge

1987, As: Pilot - Film

Michael Firth's follow-up to his 1977 Oscar-nominated ski documentary Off the Edge, but this time with a plot and scripted dialogue. Canadian Matt hitches from Auckland to meet a bunch of Kiwi extreme thrill-seekers at a southern ski field. They throw themselves off volcanoes, glaciers, mountains and into an Iron Man with "get more go" abandon. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's first feature shoot — "I was relatively cheap and I could ski" — is notable for its action sequences (set to an 80s pop soundtrack) and Billy T James as a mad pilot.   

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Billy T James America's Cup Challenge

1986, Presenter - Television

Comedian Billy T James presents an introduction to The America’s Cup as Team New Zealand challenges for The Auld Mug for the first time. Billy T visits Fremantle in Western Australia — where the Cup is being contested — and meets members of the NZ team including skipper Chris Dickson and backer Michael Fay. Rules and strategy are explained and there’s occasional product placement for sponsor Sony. Billy’s sense of humour is never too far away but this is a largely-factual exercise from a time before The America’s Cup was (briefly) “New Zealand’s Cup”.

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Footrot Flats

1986, As: Pawai - Film

In 1986 Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale and its theme song ‘Slice of Heaven’ were huge hits in New Zealand and Australia. The movie starred the characters from Murray Ball's beloved Footrot Flats comic strip; it was NZ's first — and to date only — animated feature. Kiwiana questions touted the film: Will Wal become an All Black? Will Cooch recover his stolen stag? Will the Dog win your hearts and funny bones? And punters answered at the box office. This John Toon-shot trailer (above) doubled as a promo for the Dave Dobbyn-Herbs song to smartly leverage both.

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Terry and the Gunrunners

1985, As: Spud - Television

This was a beloved six-part children’s drama about the adventures of skateboarding 12-year-old Terry Teo, based on a 1982 graphic novel comic by Stephen Ballantyne and Bob Kerr. The Auckland-set series honoured the comic’s distinctive New Zealand landscapes, people and humour, and gave them a cartoonish feel with larger-than-life acting, animated arcade game style sequences, bright costumes and oversized props. Former Goon Michael Bentine headed the cast which also featured Billy T James as a bikie, and a cameo from former PM Sir Robert Muldoon.

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Kaleidoscope - Larry Parr

1985, Subject - Television

This Kaleidoscope profile heralds the arrival of producer Larry Parr on the global film scene, following “the Kid from Raetihi” in his Jaguar from the hometown premiere of Came A Hot Friday (at that point the second most successful NZ film at the box office) to the Auckland offices of his company Mirage. In spite of the shoulder-padded, aspirational 80s framing, Parr talks about more troubled productions (eg. Pallet On The Floor) and the need for less self-conscious local cinema, with disarming honesty. Billy T James and Ian Mune provide character references.

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Terry and the Gunrunners - Episode Five

1985, As: Spud - Television

In this episode of the 80s kid’s TV drama, matters are coming to a head. Terry Teo and brother Ted and sister Polly, criminal mastermind Ray Vegas and his henchmen Blue and Curly, government agents Thompson and Crouch, the bikies and the local policeman continue to chase each other around rural Kaupati. What Thompson and Crouch lack in intelligence, they make up for in costume changes; and Spud (Billy T James) is now quoting Byron to his bikies. The constable is dimmer than first suspected — but old salt Captain Shaddock’s aim is true.

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Terry and the Gunrunners - Episode Four

1985, As: Spud - Television

In this episode of the beloved 80s kids’ drama, hero Terry Teo has escaped from evil criminal mastermind Ray Vegas. All roads lead to a lovingly realised Kaupati A&P Show (with cameo from radio personality Merv Smith) as Vegas’ henchmen Curly and Blue, Terry’s brother and sister, and Thompson and Crouch pursue him. Curly still has the best outfit and manages to trash another motorcycle — but the bikies are too busy discussing philosophy. Meanwhile, Thompson and Crouch are revealed as government agents (with a cavalier approach to spending taxpayers’ money).

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Terry and the Gunrunners - Episode Three

1985, As: Spud - Television

In this episode of the larger-than-life kids' drama series, action moves to the punningly named town of Kaupati where crime boss Ray Vegas and sidekicks Curly and Blue are expecting a weapons delivery (in well labelled cardboard cartons). They’ve also abducted Terry Teo after he stumbled on their cunning plan. Meanwhile, Terry’s sister and brother are in pursuit, Thompson and Crouch are looking highly conspicuous in their quest for stealth, the bikies are discussing Hegel — and the Kaupati cop could be the dimmest bulb in the chandelier so far.

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Terry and the Gunrunners - First Episode

1985, As: Spud - Television

This first episode from the kidult series pits 12 year old Terry Teo, sister Polly and brother Ted against a gang of gunrunners led by crime boss Ray Vegas (former Goon Michael Bentine) after Terry skates down the wrong driveway and stumbles on the crims and their illegal arsenal. Terry was fondly remembered by Kiwi kids who grew up in the 80s. Taking cues from the Stephen Ballantyne and Bob Kerr comic it was based on, there are Batman-esque graphics and arcade game style animated sequences. Sean Duffy’s bald villain is called Curly and the bikie is Billy T.

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Terry and the Gunrunners - Episode Two

1985, As: Spud - Television

In this episode of the kids’ adventure series, 12 year old Terry Teo has stumbled on a gunrunning operation. The baddies — boss Ray Vegas and villainous sidekicks Curly and Blue — are hunting for him; and Terry’s brother and sister are doing their best to help, ending up in Kaupati in the most Kiwi holiday park ever. Meanwhile, more information emerges about the mysterious, but dim, Thompson and Crouch as they report to their boss (none other than real life former PM Sir Robert Muldoon) and Billy T James is turning out to be a very cultured bikie.

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CER - Billy T James and Carter Edwards in Concert

1984, Performer

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Came a Hot Friday

1984, As: The Tainuia Kid - Film

“The funniest, liveliest, most exuberant film ever made in New Zealand”. So said critic Nicholas Reid, a year after Came a Hot Friday became 1985's biggest local movie hit. Reid may still be on the money. Though Billy T’s loony Mexican-Māori cowboy is beloved by fans, he is but one eccentric here among many — as two scheming conmen hit town, to encounter bookies, boozers, country hicks, nasty crim Marshall Napier, and Prince Tui Teka playing saxophone. Until the arrival of The Piano in 1993, Ian Mune and Dean Parker’s award-loaded adaptation remained NZ's third biggest local hit.

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Rabbiter's Rest - A Fair Cop

1983, As: Ben - Television

In this episode of the Jon Gadsby written rural sitcom, the locals at the The Rabbiter’s Rest attempt to take an overzealous young constable down a peg or two — and Michael Haigh has yet another of his police roles as the worldly wise local sergeant. No appearance from Gadsby in this episode but David Telford is the genial proprietor, Doreen the barmaid reprises Annie Whittle’s role in A Week of It and Billy T James is among the regulars propping up the bar. The humour is gentle and some of the jokes are shaggier than the local sheep flock at shearing time.

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Koha - Billy T James

1983, Subject - Television

TVNZ’s Māori programme Koha talks to Billy T James in this studio interview. At 34, he is already one of NZ’s most prominent performers after a breakthrough role in Radio Times, two years of his own TV show and winning Entertainer of the Year. Topics include the unwitting role his teachers played in his mimicry, his brief career in commercial art, touring with the Maori Volcanics and whether his characters unfairly stereotype Māori. He also discusses why his humour doesn’t work with overseas audiences and recounts meeting a rather confused American.

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Rabbiter's Rest

1983 - 1985, Actor - Television

Off the back of the success of A Week of It and McPhail and Gadsby, Jon Gadsby was given his own opportunity to write this gentle rural based sitcom series. No involvement from David McPhail but AK Grant was on board as script editor (with Gadsby’s onscreen involvement limited to a cameo as a highly competitive rugby coach). Set in the rural backwater of Rabbit Flats, the series drew on Gadsby’s own experiences as a bar worker in the Southland town of Dipton, and allowed him to revisit the familiar territory of the bar-based skits from his previous series.

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One of those Blighters

1982, As: Dance MC - Television

One of those Blighters began life as a doco on Taranaki novelist Ronald Hugh Morrieson, but after interviews with many who knew him, morphed into something more offbeat: a semi-fictionalised tale of Morrieson’s mates reminiscing about his departure, interwoven with highlights from his tales of drunkards and con artists. The dramatisations are from his four novels - all became movies - plus one posthumously published short story. Amidst a cast packed to the rafters with carousing Kiwi screen legends, fellow multi-talented muso Bruno Lawrence plays Morrieson.

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Loose Enz - The Protesters

1982, As: Bobby - Television

With a stellar cast, including Jim Moriarty, Merata Mita and Billy T James (as a Marxist), The Protesters explores issues surrounding race and land ownership in NZ in the aftermath of the Springbok Tour and occupation of Bastion Point. A group of Māori and Pākehā protestors occupy ancestral land that the government is trying to sell. As they wait for the police to turn up they debate whether to go quietly or respond with violence. Though some wounds are healed, The Protesters ends on a note of division and uncertainly, gauging the contemporary climate.

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The Billy T James Show

1981 - 1988, Actor, Writer

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Under the Mountain

1981, As: MOT Officer - Television

Classic sci-fi TV series Under the Mountain follows the adventures of redheaded twins with psychic powers — Rachel and Theo — on their Auckland summer holiday. They meet the mysterious Mr Jones, an alien emissary who enlists them in the battle against the evil Wilberforces, who are plotting planetary destruction. Adapted from the Maurice Gee novel, the series' fx left their slimy imprint on a generation of NZ kids, haunted by the transmogrifying Wilberforces, who changed from humans into giant slugs slithering underneath Auckland’s volcanoes.

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Radio Times - Series One, Episode Two

1980, As: Dexter Fitzgibbons - Television

The original launchpad for Billy T’s rise to TV superstar, Radio Times travels back in time to find a fresh angle on the musical variety show. Inspired by 30s and 40s era radio shows, the series features a swinging dancehall band, fake singing stars, German villains, and coconut shell sound effects. Creator Tom Parkinson’s masterstroke: casting Billy T James as oh-so-British compere Dexter Fitzgibbons. In this episode the cast go South American, forgotten bombshell Alita channels Marlene Dietrich, and The Yandall Sisters cover Fats Waller classic 'Handful of Keys'.

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On the Mat: 29 July 1980

1980, Subject - Television

This episode of the legendary pro-wrestling show screened on 29 July 1980. Ernie Leonard and Steve Rickard compere the action at Canterbury Court Stadium. In the first match up Aussie grappler Larry O'Day teams up with local Merv Fortune to take on Kid Hardie and young Ricky Rickard. An excerpt features Brute Miller and Sweet William (later famous as The Bushwackers) against Lu Leota and Samoan Joe; while Jack Claybourne and Ron Miller round out the bill. Billy T James makes an appearance and comments on the authenticity of the in-the-ring proceedings.

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Radio Times

1980 - 1983, As: Dexter Fitzgibbons - Television

The launchpad for Billy T’s rise to television superstar, Radio Times recreates an era when home entertainment involved another type of box entirely. Inspired by 30s and 40s era radio extravaganzas, producer Tom Parkinson creates a show complete with swinging dancehall band, adventure serials and coconut shell sound effects. Parkinson’s masterstroke was casting Billy T as the oh-so-British compere glueing everything together (and occasionally sliding effortlessly into a different accent). The Yandall Sisters, singer Craig Scott and writer Derek Payne also feature.