Actor Ilona Rodgers has acted opposite Kiwi legends Bruno Lawrence and Billy T James, battled hairy monsters on Doctor Who, mastered the bitchy putdown on Gloss, and appeared on longrunning Kiwi soaps Shortland Street and Close to Home.
Born in North Yorkshire, Rodgers trained at a ballet and acting school in Surrey, then at Bristol's highly-competitive Old Vic Drama School. She began her acting career on stage, before two roles in 1964 helped her break into television: an adaptation of Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit, and the longrunning Doctor Who (in story ‘The Sensorites', opposite Dr Who William Hartnell).
The 60s saw Rodgers making fleeting television appearances in The Avengers, The Saint, and playing Scottish romantic interest to Jethro Bodine on American show Beverly Hillbillies. In 1968 she won a bigger role in Sammy Davis Jr movie Salt and Pepper.
Following a stint in New Caledonia, Rodgers moved to New Zealand in 1973 with her family. She alternated stints at Auckland's Mercury Theatre with television work: long-running television soap Close to Home, 1800s goldrush drama Hunter's Gold, and a half-hour adaptation of Katherine Mansfield short story The Woman at the Store. Rodgers won Feltex awards for the two latter programmes.
In 1979 Rodgers relocated to Australia. Over the next seven years she appeared in a run of Australian TV soap operas and mini-series, including The Sullivans, an award-winning turn on rags to riches convict tale Sara Dane, and 200 plus episodes of soap Sons and Daughters. In the longrunning Prisoner, she played pseudo-clairvoyant Zara Moonbeam, who agrees to impersonate the ghost of another characters' daughter.
Although Rodgers returned to New Zealand in 1984, more trans-Tasman tooing and froing followed: a big role in Australian mini-series Anzacs (co-written by John Clarke), Kiwi Western Utu, playing unfortunate wife to a gun-toting Bruno Lawrence, and Wellington-shot TV drama Open House.
In 1989 Rodgers played Australian wife to comic legend Billy T, on the final sitcom reincarnation of The Billy T James Show (Rodgers became good friends with Billy T and his wife, giving them a kunekune pig which they called Ilona). The show had been born from the desire to develop a Cosby Show-style sitcom involving a mixed race marrriage.
But it is for her role as doyenne Maxine Redfern on iconic 80s soap Gloss that Rodgers is best known. Producer Janice Finn, who knew Rodgers as a friend and had seen her play a string of "nice" parts, initially worried she was wrong for the role of the conniving editor. The audition soon changed Finn's mind: "She looked a million bucks and her audition was just perfect...in soaps there is no room for prima donnas, because the pace is so fast and it's such a hard slog. Part of the reason we've had such a good time with Gloss is because of Ilona's attitude and her spirit."
Originally created by Listener writer Rosemary McLeod, the part of high fashion magazine editor Maxine Redfern would go on to garner Rodgers two consecutive best actor awards over the show's three seasons. In Rodgers opinion, Maxine was more than just a bitch. "She can be ruthless and dogmatic, but she has a very maternal side, particularly to her own children, which as a mother I can relate to very easily."
In 1992 Rodgers reteamed with Gloss actor Andy Anderson and producer Finn to work on the longrunning Marlin Bay, set in a luxury coastal resort. Rodgers played Charlotte Kincaid, the manager of a private casino which is part of the resort (New Zealand's first casino opened during the show's final season.) Marlin Bay's mixture of visiting tourists and Kiwi scenery made it an impressive seller overseas. At home, the series performed solidly in the face of a number of changes in scheduling and cast, from series to series.
Rodgers' television resume also includes appearances in a Kiwi retooling of Black Beauty, fantasies Hercules and Maddigan's Quest, soap opera satire Spin Doctors, and a stint hosting magazine show Good Morning. In 1991 she joined Andy Anderson in television series Gold, set in 18th century goldmining New Zealand.
Throughout the 1990s, Rodgers continued to act on stage (including David Hare's Amy's View) and small screen. She also trained in television directing. In 2011 she was part of the heavyweight cast of movie Rest for the Wicked.
As an active member of the Bahá'í faith, Rodgers has shared her drama skills at Bahá'í summer schools, and acted as a spokesperson for the Bahá'í community.
Matt Elliott, Billy T - The Life and Times of Billy T James (Auckland, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009)
Ingrid Leary, 'Ilona Rodgers - The Beauty Behind the Beast' (Interview) - North & South, July 1989, Page 98