Temuera Morrison won New Zealand television immortality in the first episode of longrunning soap Shortland Street, after a nurse told his character he was no longer in Guatemala. Morrison's role as the charismatic but abusive Jake the Muss in Once Were Warriors showed Guatemala had nothing to do with it. Critics called 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 in his blood and his upbringing: his father Laurie "never stopping singing", including time in the quartet of brother Howard Morrison. Temuera's mother came from a King Country farming family. At family get-togethers, the Morrison kids knew they might be called up at any moment to do a song, a haka, or a speech. Tem's kapa haka skills would win him an national award and see him performing overseas, including for landmark exhibition Te Māori in the United States.
At the age of 11, he was cast as Rangi in Rangi's Catch, after director Michael Forlong spotted him performing to tourists in Rotorua. Originally made for British television in 1972, Rangi's Catch was released in a shortened version in New Zealand cinemas. Morrison played one of four children chasing a pair of escaped convicts. Dominion reviewer Catherine de la Roche excitedly labelled it "one of the best children's films ever made".
In the 80s, after a number of years of clerical jobs, Morrison got a place on a training scheme in performing arts launched by his uncle Howard, after pretending he wasn't related. During the 20-week course, a dance performance in Aotea Square while clad in tights helped teach him that performers should not let embarrassment enter their thoughts.
On the recommendation of mentor and castmember Don Selwyn, he was given a small role as a Rastafarian street kid in the 'Nothing's Changed' episode of Mortimer's Patch. His only line: "Honky. Smooth honky. Nasty." Morrison followed it with much bigger roles in offbeat drama Seekers (as a brash real estate agent) and period co-production Adventurer (as a Māori chief). Meanwhile on the big screen, In 1984 he impressed as a smooth-talking street kid in inter-racial romance Other Halves.
Though the latter role would win him a GOFTA nomination for best actor, it would be another three years before Morrison's career jumped into second gear. 1987/88 saw him interviewing elders while reporting for Koha and Waka Huia; playing a sleazy policeman in Merata Mita's Mauri, alongside Don Selwyn; talking te reo in pioneering Māori drama series E Tipu e Rea, and joining the second season of soap Gloss as Kerry Smith's love interest, a journalist who seemingly dies and then returns. Morrison was running himself ragged; inbetween Gloss episodes he was also doing a breakfast show on Aotearoa Radio with Jay Laga-aia, and flying to Dunedin to play a cop in TV's The Grasscutter.
In the midst of it all came Morrison's first big screen starring role: as a "fairly sceptical" journalist on the run, in lighthearted 1988 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 his 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 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 to mark the show's 4000th episode; Ropata was briefly named Shortland's CEO. He also found time between early Shortland episodes to help out behind the scenes on Jane Campion's The Piano; Sam Neill argued that Morrison was "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. Morrison originally auditioned to play Uncle Bully (the part ultimately played by Cliff Curtis). After three months bulking up with the help of his agent Robert Bruce and mate Kevin Smith, 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. "I was the big gamble".
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); "Extraordinary ... I can't recall when I last saw a performance boiling with such psychological and physical menace." (Neil Jillett in 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; the two had first acted together in Rangi's Catch 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 New Zealand actors had rarely travelled. Morrison played ex-partner to Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire, boarded a renegade cruise ship for Speed, 2, played villian alongside his mate Cliff Curtis in Six Days Seven Nights, and befriended Brando while playing his right-hand Dog Man in a remake of The Island of Dr Moreau. The latter encounter provides one of the most memorable chapters in Morrison's autobiography From Haka to Hollywood.
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 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,drug-dealing brother (Lawrence Makoare) over questions of stolen land.Sam Pillsbury (The Scarecrow) directed. The film's hot potato combination of political and thriller elements saw it spending a long time in development. 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 bounty hunter Jango Fett, and 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. He later described Po as "one of the best characters I've ever had the chance to play". Director Ward has said that Morrison helped rally the extras. "He leads with a sense of charisma". 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. In October 2009 filming began on Anglo-NZ movie Tracker, in which he shared extensive screentime with Brit actor Ray Winstone as a framed Māori seaman who Winstone's character is trying to bring in to the authorities. 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 of Martin Campbell's Green Lantern — as purple-skinned alien Abin Sur.
In March 2012 he began work on locally-shot hit Mt Zion. Morrison would be nominated for an NZ Film award for his role as potato farming father to a wannabe musician (Australian Idol winner Stan Walker). The film was directed by Tearepa Kahi. October saw the release of Danny Mulheron-helmed splatter comedy Fresh Meat, with Morrison as the arrogant head of a Māori family with cannibalistic tendencies. In 2013 he became one of the only Kiwi actors to feature in his own reality show, The Life and Times of Temuera Morrison.
In 2015 Morrison finished shooting Lee Tamahori's Mahana, the first collaboration between the two since Once Were Warriors. Based on the novel Bulibasha by Witi Ihimaera, the film follows two families who are longtime adversaries in the world of competitive shearing. Morrison plays Tamihana, the head of the Mahana family. The film debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2016, with NZ release set following in March. Morrison was later nominated for Best Actor at the 2017 Rialto NZ Film Awards.
Morrison's book Temuera Morrison - From Haka to Hollywood was 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
Paul Holmes, 'The Trials of Doctor Who?' (Interview) - Herald on Sunday, 11 May 2008, page 25
Mark Walters, 'Temuera Morrison' (Interview) Bigfanboy.com website. Loaded 2005. Accessed 1 December 2008
Unknown Writer, 'Warriors opens in New York, then throughout USA' - NZfilm 53, May 1995, page 10
Unknown Writer, 'Warriors tops $A6m on Australian release' - NZfilm 53, May 1995, page 11
'New Lee Tamahori Film Shoot Complete' (press release). Scoop website. Loaded 27 May 2015. Accessed 17 September 2015
Never Say Die press kit