Bruce Phillips is a veteran of stage, radio and screen. His theatre work spans five decades and over 100 plays, including starring roles in Hamlet, M. Butterfly and Uncle Vanya. His run of awards includes a Chapman Tripp award for playing English mathematician Alan Turing in Breaking the Code (1990). Starting from his time at Wellington's Downstage Theatre, Phillips has also written a number of scripts — including for 60s era TV series Peppermint Twist, hit soap Gloss and for radio.
Phillips grew up in Wellington in the 1950s, where he sometimes ran away from school. He finished high school in Wanganui, after his railway foreman father got a transfer. Phillips had begun a love-hate relationship with acting early on, after missing out on a plum part at age 11. His bad luck continued when he won a big role, only for the school principal to decide the play was too risqué to perform. Phillips ended up working on props for the replacement.
After high school Phillips returned to Wellington, where he eventually got a degree in French. He kept his hand in acting, but there was also a “nebulous, experimental phase” that included stints as waiter, driver, encyclopedia seller and cardboard box maker.
Then Phillips headed to England, where he wrote a play about the differences between New Zealand and the motherland. The play helped motivate him to return home. Since then he has done 22 years — on and off — at Wellington's Circa Theatre (where he was on the theatre's board), plus many roles at Christchurch's Court Theatre.
His earliest screen role was in 1976 four-part series Epidemic. Following futuristic short film Playtime (1981), he auditioned for the main part of the doctor on small town period drama Country GP (1984-85). Instead he ended up playing enigmatic daredevil pilot Richard Dalgleish.
Phillips has appeared in two other ongoing television roles. In Worzel Gummidge Down Under he was the Crowman, the creator of Jon Pertwee's scarecrow character, while in Roger Hall comedy series Neighbourhood Watch (1990) he was womanising periodontist Victor. Phillips had already performed the role onstage in The Share Club and After the Crash.
Another stage role which ended up on television was Robert Lord’s classic 1992 play Joyful and Triumphant. Following a family over a succession of Christmas celebrations, the production required the entire cast to age 40 years each night. After playing Ted Bishop in Wellington, Adelaide and the United Kingdom, Phillips reprised the part again when Joyful and Triumphant was turned into this television play.
Phillips' other TV appearances include docudrama Fallout (as PM Geoffrey Palmer), Erebus: The Aftermath (as real life barrister Roger Maclaren), This is Not My Life (as a nosy neighbour to the main character), and Shortland Street (as the sometimes suicidal Len Cooper). In Emmy-nominated TV-movie Ike: Countdown to D-Day, he was British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. He also did a short stint as the legendary southern man in adverts for Speight's Beer. The role saw his character teaching city slickers some farming skills.
On the big screen, Phillips acted in acclaimed Aramoana drama Out of the Blue, and played a parent in both Starlight Hotel and Alex. He was one of the down and outs in Rawiri Paratene film The Insatiable Moon (2010), and co-stars in 2019 short Bygones.
Profile published on 28 October 2010; updated on 14 March 2018
'Bruce Phillips' Gail Cowan Management website. Accessed 14 March 2019
Noel O’Hare, ‘Urban Reptiles’ - The Listener, 8 October 1990, page 32
Melody Nixon, ‘Uncle Vanya’ (Review - broken link) Lumière website. Accessed 28 October 2010
John Smythe, Downstage Upfront - The First 40 Years of New Zealand’s Longest-Running Professional Theatre (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004)
Jane Waddell, ‘Bun Bagger Bruce Becomes Beaut Fighter Pilot (Interview) - W5 Magazine, 17 April 1984, page 8
'Bruce Phillips' Court Theatre website. Accessed 14 March 2019