When TV series Funny As was made, tracing the history of New Zealand comedy, Billy T James got namechecked more than most. He was a Kiwi entertainment icon, beloved by a wide audience for his many television and stage appearances. A gifted impressionist, his affectionate and oft-debated portraits of Māori (and other nationalities) stretched 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 began an apprenticeship as a signwriter after leaving school.
In his mid 20s Billy T was invited to join showband the Māori 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 2009 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". Already he "knew his routines intricately. Every inflection, every pause, every chuckle, every step had been honed in 100s of perfomances offshore."
Watching Billy win over a drunken, rowdy sports club crowd in 1978, TV producer Tom Parkinson was astonished by his timing and talent. Billy had sung occasionally on The Ray Woolf Show. Parkinson felt there was a lot more he could bring to the medium.
After becoming TVNZ's head of entertainment, Parkinson realised a longheld dream to create Radio Times, a variety show that aped old pre-50s radios shows. As Parkinson writes here, he 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 debuted in 1980 it won rave reviews. The NZ Herald said Billy "should be kept chained to a microphone". Although it was recorded in front of a live audience, the show 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, with echoes of Radio Times' music hall style. 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 teleplay The Protestors, playing communist Bobby Watson. In the same period he also turned up in One of Those Blighters, and cameoed as a motorcycle cop in classic sci-fi series Under the Mountain.
When the second season of The Billy T James Show kicked off, Billy was keen to add 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 sketch on stage. Te News won fans, plus criticism that he was stereotyping Māori, which Billy firmly denied. He argued that his humour concentrated on accents and mannerisms, and that getting an accent perfect 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), season five saw major change. Sidekicks Laurie Dee and Doug Aston were controversially dropped, and the bulk of writing duties fell on Billy and new partner Peter Rowley. Now commanded by comedy veteran Tony Holden, the fifth season included sketches mixing Captain Cook, solvent abuse, a Miami Vice takeoff, and the immortal "where did I get my bag?" ad, possibly the most repeated seven seconds in Kiw television history.
Billy made his big screen debut with 1984 comedy Came A Hot Friday, based on the over-the-top novel by Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Director Ian Mune cast Billy 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 who believes he is a Mexican bandito. Although only on screen for 15 minutes, the performance proved a comic highlight. Playwright Roger Hall recalls audiences going crazy before Billy T appeared on-screen, as soon as they heard his "insane giggle".
The Listener called Billy "ace up the sleeve", while American showbusiness magazine Variety praised his "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 (he lso 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, he acted in forgotten sitcom Rabbiter's Rest, and played the gang leader on Terry and the Gunrunners (this time singing 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. Two years later he was awarded an MBE for services to entertainment. By now 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 recounted 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 sitcom, inspired partly by The Cosby Show; Billy played a DJ on small-town Waikato radio station Cuz FM, alongside screen wife Ilona Rodgers, loudmouth Aussie Mark Hadlow, and family matriarch Ramai Hayward. The show's roster of actors and guest stars included many names Billy had worked with in the past. But many felt the results were a disappointment, possibly because he was far more comfortable playing other characters 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 Tom Parkinson writes here, getting the show made was a close call. Then Billy went on the road again.
Following a memorable live show in February 1991, Billy contracted a cold which seriously weakened his heart. It was to be one of his final performances: he died on 7 August 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."
Tribute documentary A Celebration (1995) mixes classic performances with interviews. Billy T James - A Daughter's Story (1997) 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 Award, with aspiring comedians competing to win the legendary yellow towel. A compilation of his sketches became one of the most successful Kiwi titles released on DVD.
Matt Elliott's biography Billy T - The Life and Times of Billy T James was published in late 2009. North and South judged it the best local biography of the year. Elliott was one of those who talked about Billy T, in extended interviews conducted for series Funny As. Peter Rowley and Billy T's former minder Rick Harris talked about fun times, favourite sketches and Billy's "little boy" qualities in this interview (Rowley also talks about Billy in this interview).
In August 2011 competing screen projects debuted which chronicled Billy's life, both made by people who'd worked with him: well-regarded big screen documentary Billy T: Te Movie, directed by Came a Hot Friday's Ian Mune, and produced by Tom Parkinson and Robert Boyd-Bell; and high-rating TV movie biopic Billy, produced by Tony Holden.
The team behind Te Movie chose to focus on Billy T's career and comedy as a reflection of cultural shifts occuring in Aotearoa. Although much footage was tracked down and restored, most of the original TV shows had been taped over, with only a few episodes remaining from the first three seasons of The Billy T James Show.
Tony Holden meanwhile described his TV movie as a "love story" told in flashback, through the eyes of his wife. Some accused it of inaccuracies; Step Dave actor Tainui Tukiwaho won praise for his performance as Billy. Holden argued he had no intention other than "to hold him up as being anything other than a staggeringly important figure on our entertainment scene. The man was a real genius."
Moe mai e te rangatira, moe mai.
Profile updated on 15 November 2019
'Rick Harris and Peter Rowley - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 9 October 2019. Accessed 15 November 2019
'Roger Hall - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 14 October 2019. Accessed 15 January 2020
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) - The Listener, 31 August 1985, page 40
Mike Nicolaidi, 'Came a Hot Friday' (Review) - Variety, 20 February 1985, page 23
Toby Parkinson, 'The Road Less Travelled: The Making of Te Movie' - Onfilm, August 2011, page 10 (Volume 28, no 7)
Tom Parkinson, 'Billy T Live - The Producer's Perspective'. Loaded 12 December 2008. Accessed 15 November 2019
Philip Wakefield, 'Billy biopic hits the small screen' - Onfilm, August 2011, page 12 (Volume 28, no 7)