Temuera Morrison won New Zealand television immortality in the first episode of longrunning soap Shortland Street, after a nurse told his character that he was no longer in Guatemala. Morrison's role as the charismatic but abusive Jake the Muss in Once Were Warriors demonstrated that Guatemala had nothing to do with it. Critics labelled him "extraordinary", "engagingly terrifying", and a star in the making.
Morrison grew up in Rotorua, in a family of two boys and six girls. Performance was part of his life early on: his father Laurie had sung alongside brother Howard Morrison before Temuera's birth. Temuera was involved in kapa haka on a number of Howard's shows, and later when Te Māori toured the United States.
At the age of 11, he was cast as Rangi in Rangi's Catch, after director Michael Forlong spotted him performing in a Māori cultural group. Originally made for British television in 1973, Rangi's Catch saw New Zealand theatrical release back in the days when Kiwi film was still an oxymoron. Morrison played one of four children chasing a pair of escaped convicts. Dominion reviewer Catherine de la Roche labelled it "one of the best children's films ever made".
In the 80s, bored with clerical jobs, Morrison won a place on a Government-funded training scheme for performers. On the recommendation of castmember Don Selwyn, Morrison was given a one-line role as a Rastafarian street kid in police show Mortimer's Patch. He followed it with much bigger roles in offbeat drama Seekers and stylish period series Adventurer. Meanwhile on the big screen, Morrison impressed as a smooth-talking street kid in inter-racial romance Other Halves (1984).
Though the latter role would win him a GOFTA nomination for best actor, it would be another three years before Morrison's acting career jumped into second gear. 1987/88 saw him playing a sleazy policeman in Merata Mita's Mauri, alongside longtime mentor Don Selwyn; talking te reo in E Tipu e Rea episode Te Moemoea, and doing 11 episodes of soap Gloss as a terminally-ill journalist, inbetween flying to Dunedin for tele-movie The Grasscutter.
In the midst of it all came Morrison's first starring role: as a cynical journalist on the run, in lighthearted thriller Never Say Die. Director Geoff Murphy overruled opposition from some of his producers to give Morrison the part, after noting the self-deprecating quality of his screen test. Listener reviewer Helen Martin later wrote that Morrison's performance showed "a lot of style".
In 1992 he began a three year stint on new five-day-a-week soap Shortland Street, playing ladies man Doctor Ropata. Morrison found enduring fame thanks to a single line of dialogue he didn't actually say: in the first episode he was delivering a baby using an unorthodox method when nurse Carrie Burton (Lisa Crittenden) told him "you're not in Guatemala now, Doctor Ropata" (years later Dr Ropata returned to the show for six weeks, and was briefly named Shortland's CEO). The one-time Koha reporter found time between early Shortland episodes to be a Māori language advisor on Jane Campion's The Piano. According to actor Sam Neill, he was also "kind of in charge of morale" on set.
Then it was announced that Morrison would play the part of the tough, violent Jake Heke in a movie adaptation of Alan Duff novel Once Were Warriors. The filmmakers had considered prisoners and gangmembers, before deciding only an actor could handle the part. After three months bulking up, Morrison added nine kilograms to his frame.
"Everyone thought I'd screwed up when I cast him," Warriors director Lee Tamahori admitted later. For a while during rehearsals, Morrison worried they might be right.
When the film began its highly successful international release, critics were united in praise for Morrison and co-star Rena Owen. "You don't often see acting like this in the movies" (Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times); "...an engagingly terrifying monster, and when he's not hurting people he's strangely chivalrous and impulsive" (Village Voice); "Morrison and Owen absorb the nuances of their roles entirely, producing performances that must be considered early contenders for next year's Oscars" (Entertainment Weekly); "I can't recall when I last saw a performance boiling with such psychological and physical menace." (The Melbourne Age).
The Wall Street Journal and The Seattle Journal compared Morrison's performance to that of Marlon Brando. Morrison was more modest. "... it's Beth's story. My role in it was to provide the misery."
When he reprised his Warriors role in 1999 sequel What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, Morrison snared his second NZ Film best actor award. The successful sequel saw Morrison reunited with Grasscutter director Ian Mune, who he had acted alongside in Rangi's Catch, his acting debut, 26 years before. With the character of Jake attempting to break out of the cycle of violence, Broken Hearted again showed Morrison moving far beyond the easy charm of earlier roles.
In the period between the two Warriors movies, Morrison went places that few Kiwi actors had before, with a run of acting roles in Hollywood. But Hollywood could be strange. Morrison appeared alongside Sandra Bullock and a renegade cruise ship in the sequel to Speed, Pamela Anderson and her silicon implants in Barb Wire, and Marlon Brando and sundry monsters in a 1996 remake of The Island of Dr Moreau. The latter film has entered moviemaking legend for all the wrong reasons.
Award-nominated tele-movie Ihaka: Blunt Instrument was a tongue in cheek tale in which Morrison starred as a bad boy Kiwi cop, hunting a killer in Sydney.
2001 feature film Crooked Earth saw Morrison back in New Zealand, starring as an ex-military man returning home to bury his father, who finds himself facing off against his rebellious, militant brother (Lawrence Makoare). The Scarecrow's Sam Pillsbury directed. The film juggled political and thriller elements; Variety magazine found it "handsomely mounted and compelling".
Since Crooked Earth, Morrison's career has alternated the occasional Kiwi role — including hosting duties on Māori supernatural series Mataku — with liberal doses of the Star Wars myth. In the second Star Wars sequel he played bountyhunter Jango Fett, plus a cavalcade of cloned warriors. Morrison went on to do voice work for a number of Star Wars video games, joking it was "the only movie you can be in for two seconds and be famous."
In 2004 Morrison played an Native American Indian in offbeat western Blueberry, and joined Nick Nolte and Kiwi cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh in The Beautiful Country, in which a Vietnam war child searches for his GI Dad.
Soon after, he appeared in Vincent Ward's troubled period epic River Queen. Morrison played rebel chief Te Kai Po, in a role partly inspired by Titokowaru. That year (2005) he also launched his own talk show on Prime. The Tem Show's guest list included George Lucas, musician Nathan Haines and Sam Neill.
He went on to act in US TV movie The Immortal Voyage of Captain Drake, as the nemesis of captain Sir Francis Drake. October 2009 saw fiming begin on Tracker, with Brit actor Ray Winstone playing a bounty-hunter on a cat and mouse hunt for Morrison's Māori whaler. Brit Ian Sharp directed. Morrison also joined the cast of TV's Spartacus, playing Doctore, trainer of the gladiators, and spent four to six hours in make-up for a near-unrecognisable role in the opening minutes of Martin Campbell's Green Lantern - as purple-skinned alien Abin Sur.
In March 2012 he began work on locally-shot hit Mt Zion, playing father to an ambitious young musician (Australian Idol winner Stan Walker). The film is directed by Tearepa Kahi. October saw the release of Danny Mulheron-helmed splatter comedy Fresh Meat. with Morrison heading a Māori family with cannibalistic tendencies.
Morrison's life story is told in Temuera Morrison - From Haka to Hollywood, published in late 2009.
Temuera Morrison and Paul Little, From Haka to Hollywood (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2009)
Roger Ebert, 'Once Were Warriors' (Review) - Chicago Sun-Times, 3 March 1995