Billy T James is a New Zealand entertainment icon, still fondly remembered for his many stage and television appearances, plus the role of a crazed Māori-Mexican bandito in movie Came a Hot Friday. A gifted impressionist, Billy's affectionate portraits of Māori (and many other nationalities) pushed the boundaries of Kiwi comedy. His trademark giggle is embedded in the country's popular culture; Nearly half the respondents in a 2009 Listener poll voted him our greatest local comedian.
Billy grew up as William James Te Wehi Taitoko, first in the Waikato town of Leamington, then in Whangarei. At high school he sang and played guitar in a band. Popular for drawing caricatures of his teachers, Billy would begin an apprenticeship as a signwriter after leaving school.
In his mid-20s he was invited to join showband the Maori Volcanics, and was soon performing around the world, echoing the path of entertainers John Rowles and Frankie Stevens. He quickly showed his skills as impressionist, comedian, guitarist and saxophone-player. While living in Australia Billy went solo, dropping his Taitoko surname, and rearranging his birth names to "something the Aussies could pronounce".
As Matt Elliott writes in his biography Billy T - The Life and Times of Billy T James, Billy's tours with the Volcanics and Prince Tui Teka meant that unlike most acts, "he arrived on the local scene almost perfectly formed". He already "knew his routines intricately. Every inflection, every pause, every chuckle, every step had been honed in hundreds of perfomances offshore."
Watching him win over a drunken, rowdy sports club crowd in 1978, TV producer Tom Parkinson was astonished by Billy's timing and talent. Billy had sung occasionally on TV's The Ray Woolf Show, but Parkinson felt he could bring much more to the medium.
After being crowned TVNZ's head of entertainment, Parkinson got to realise a longheld dream to create Radio Times, a variety show that aped old pre-50s radios shows. As he writes here, Parkinson had a crazy idea of how to tie it all together: getting Billy to play the show's dashing and very English host, Dexter Fitzgibbons. When Radio Times premiered in 1980 it won rave reviews (the NZ Herald said Billy "should be kept chained to a microphone"). Although the show was recorded in front of a live audience, it gave Billy the chance to hone his talents for the very different medium of television.
The first of six seasons of sketch comedy programme The Billy T James Show debuted in July 1981, echoing the music hall style of Radio Times. Billy's co-stars included his Radio sidekick Laurie Dee, and veteran comic Doug Aston. The same year, the trio were invited to perform a sketch at the Royal Variety Concert.
In 1982, Don Selwyn cast Billy in a small, non-comedic role in tele-play The Protestors, playing communist Bobby Watson, and he also turned up in One of Those Blighters (the previous year he'd cameoed as a motorcycle cop in Under the Mountain).
When the second season of The Billy T James show began, Billy suggested adding a very different role into the mix: a down home take-off of Māori news bulletin Te Karere, with Billy in a black singlet, a yellow towel round his neck. Billy had roadtested the Te News sketch on stage; it won fans, and criticism that he was stereotyping Māori, which Billy firmly denied. He argued that his humour concentrated on accents and mannerisms, and that perfecting an accent played a part in making the humour more acceptable. "I think I've just come in in the middle of this quiet spot where everyone's too frightened to say anything and just done it. There's still further to go."
With the 1985 departure of Billy T James Show producers Tom Parkinson and Jeff Bennett, for yet to be launched channel TV3, the fifth season underwent major change. Cast members Laurie Dee and Doug Aston were controversially dropped, and the bulk of writing duties fell on Billy and new sidekick Peter Rowley. Now commanded by comedy veteran Tony Holden, the fifth season included sketches mixing Captain Cook and solvent abuse, a Miami Vice takeoff, and the immortal "where did I get my bag?" commercial, possibly the most repeated seven seconds in NZ's TV history.
Billy made his big screen debut with 1984 comedy Came A Hot Friday, based on the over-the-top tale by Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Director Ian Mune cast him after witnessing first-hand Billy's "feel for an absolutely honest performance", on the set of One of those Blighters. Billy played the Tainuia Kid, a crazed Māori character who believes he is a Mexican bandito. Though only on-screen for 15 minutes, the performance proved a comic highlight. The Listener called the role Hot Friday's "ace up the sleeve", while the raves of American showbusiness magazine Variety included praise for Billy's "riveting, totally original performance"; "this kid says more about cultural cross-breeding in small countries like New Zealand than any learned academic."
It was to be Billy's biggest movie role, winning him a GOFTA award (the same year, The Billy T James Show scored gongs for Best Entertainment Programme and 'Best Performance in a Non-Dramatic Role'). Elsewhere Billy provided the voice of pie van owner Pāwai in 1986 animated hit Footrot Flats - A Dog's (Tail) Tale, and cameoed as a dodgy pilot in ski movie The Leading Edge (plus composed a track for the film, alongside his musical director Tui Tomoti). Billy also appeared in big-budget tourism short Kiwi Magic, made on large format 70mm film.
On the small screen, Billy acted in forgotten sitcom Rabbiter's Rest, and played the gang leader on Terry and the Gunrunners (he also sang the show's title song). Billy also completed one-off TV specials on the America's Cup (though filming was cut short by his gall-bladder problems) and with Australian comedian Carter Edwards.
In 1984 Billy won the Feltex Best Entertainment Award, followed by another for Entertainer of the Decade. In 1986 he was awarded an MBE for services to entertainment. By this point The Billy T James Show had reached a new ratings high, with almost half the population tuning in - more than the primetime news. A talented artist, he was also collaborating with cartoonist Chris Slane for comic book The Billy T. James Real Hard-Case Book, and a sequel.
By now Billy had developed serious health problems, with a heart transplant in 1989 (an experience he recounts in documentary The James Gang Rides Again.) Partly because "he needed some hope", Tom Parkinson had discussed with Billy the idea of a show that made comedy from his experiences of "being brown and white".
Released under the familiar title The Billy T James Show, the new project was a situation comedy, inspired partly by The Cosby Show; Billy played a DJ on small-town Waikato radio station Cuz FM, alongside screen wife Ilona Rodgers, loudmouth Australian Mark Hadlow, and family matriach Ramai Hayward. The show's roster of actors and guest-stars included many names Billy had worked with, but some feel the results were weakened because Billy was far more comfortable playing others than himself.
After five months recuperating from his transplant, Billy returned to the stage for 1990 variety special Billy T James, Alive and Giggling. As Parkinson writes here, getting the show made was a close call. Then Billy went on the road again.
After a memorable live show in February 1991, he contracted a cold which seriously weakened his heart. It was one of his final performances: Billy died on August 7 1991. Chris Hegan, the son of Billy's agents, wrote at the time that "Billy gave us a way of laughing at ourselves in a way that no one else has done and in a particularly unique style. And we are not very good at that as New Zealanders."
1997 documentary Billy T James - A Daughter's Story, presented by adopted daughter Cherie James (later an award-nominated actor)mixes interviews with Billy's acquaintances, and insights into the conflicts over his burial. His legacy also lives on in the annual Billy T. Awards, with aspiring comedians competing to win the legendary yellow towel.
In December 2009 Matt Elliott's biography Billy T - The Life and Times of Billy T James was published. North and South named it the best local biography of the year.
August 2011 saw the arrival of two screen projects chronicling Billy's life: biopic and "love story" Billy (directed by Peter Burger) on television, with Kai Korero actor Tainui Tukiwaho playing Billy T; and big screen doco Billy T: Te Movie, directed by Came a Hot Friday's Ian Mune, and produced by Tom Parkinson and Robert Boyd-Bell.
Moe mai e te rangatira, moe mai.
Matt Elliott, Billy T - The Life and Times of Billy T James (Auckland, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009)
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Tom McWilliams, 'Slapstick in hicksville,' (Review of Came a Hot Friday)- Listener, 31 August 1985, Page 40
Mike Nicolaidi, 'Came a Hot Friday' (Review)- Variety, 20 February 1985, Page 23
Tom Parkinson, 'The Producer's Perspective'. Loaded 12 December 2008. Accessed 25 June 2011