Grant Tilly's 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, 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 60s 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 television 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 Joe 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 70s 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, dramatised 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 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 tries to mediate between Governor George Grey and Hone Heke.
Tilly's name is often associated with the work of playwright Roger Hall; he has appeared in many of Hall's plays, often at Circa Theatre in Wellington (which Tilly helped establish in 1976). That year, when Hall wrote his breakthrough hit 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 Gliding On began its long television run in 1981, actor Michael Haigh had made the role his own. Instead Tilly popped up from time to time playing Wally, "one of those awful little self-important bureaucrats".
On stage, Tilly had co-starred 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 American showbusiness magazine 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 70s, 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 satire 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's Middle Age Spread colleague Dorothy McKegg also shone, as the nasty Aunt on a mission to stop them). 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. The 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 television show written by author Margaret Mahy. Tilly played a conservationist who lives in a tree, and the show's fantastical settings meant 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 dates back until at least 1971, and includes 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-stars 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 — by now he was increasingly devoting time to other artistic pursuits. Tilly began illustrating scenes of Wellington for a local newspaper in the 70s; when his eye sight 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 prints of native birds and wildlife.
Grant Tilly passed away in April 2012. He was 74.
'Grant Tilly - a career on screen and stage' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor (Uploaded 29 March 2010) Accessed 29 March 2010
Grant Tilly, 'Tilly, Grant'. South Coast Gallery website. Accessed 11 April 2012
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Mike Nicolaidi, 'Middle Age Spread' (Review) - Variety, 31 December 1978
'Kiwi acting icon Grant Tilly dies.' Stuff website. Loaded 11 April 2012. Accessed 11 April 2012
'Carry Me Back'. The Film Archive website. Accessed 11 April 2012
'Middle Age Spread'. The Film Archive website. Accessed 29 March 2010