Ernie Leonard was an actor, newsreader, entertainer, reporter, director, producer, executive — and the first head of TVNZ's Māori Department. But for the first fifty years of his life the man who would be hailed as 'Television's Rangatira' had very little knowledge of te reo or Māori culture.
He was born in Marton in 1931. His grandfather, father and elder brother were all chiefs of Ngāti Rangiwewehi of Te Arawa; but his father, Pakake Leonard, had been sent by his tribe to the Manawatu in the 1920's in an arranged marriage to renew tribal links between Ngāti Rangiwewehi and Rangitane. Pakake was an Anglican minister, a distinguished carver and chairman of the Arawa Trust Board but, after the premature death of his wife, placed great emphasis on his children learning Pākehā skills and education (with the belief they would eventually discover their Māori heritage). As a result Ernie grew up speaking only English. His older brother was sent to Te Aute College, a Māori Boarding school, and was being groomed to take over from his father as Rangatira.
His first jobs were as a railways clerk and a shoe salesman in Rotorua; but in the aftermath of a romance terminated by his girlfriend's parents, who didn't want their daughter going out with a Māori, he enlisted in the Army and saw active service with K Force in Korea.
On his return to Rotorua he sold building society shares for six years and became prominent in the local operatic society. Regular stints as an MC at functions and festivals led to a job as Rotorua's public relations officer in 1963.
In 1970 he made an early television appearance on show Living in New Zealand, interviewing entrants in popular talent show Search for Stars.
After moving to Auckland, a meeting with a television producer friend saw him cast as Charlie Rata in Pukemanu in 1971. 'Charlie's Rock', one of the episodes, was indicative of the series' groundbreaking approach to Māori issues in NZ TV drama. It arose from Leonard discussing with script writer Hamish Keith his difficulties — and those of Charlie Rata — in reconciling Pākeha career expectations and Māori identity.
More acting work followed with appearances in the urban crime drama Section 7 — and a contract to report and direct for women's show On Camera. Work followed on programmes including Graphline, Look North and Personality Squares. But the demise of the NZBC and reorganisation of local TV into two channels left him without a job in 1974.
With no further TV work on the horizon, he spent seven months working as a wharfie until he was employed in 1975 as a newsreader and teamed with Angela D'Audney.
Producing, directing and fronting roles followed on productions including Stars on Sunday, Hudson and Halls, See Here and Kaleidoscope, plus the series that made him a household name: On the Mat. He presented the wrestling show with Steve Rickard for seven years and became its producer in 1981. He was proud of On the Mat's popularity and grateful to it for finally giving him a staff job at TVNZ — and job security, after years of contract work. Less successful was a move into light entertainment, as co-host of the ill-fated Club Show with Glyn Tucker.
In the early 80s Leonard was becoming keenly aware of his inability to speak Māori. This was reinforced by the deaths in quick succession of his grandmother, father and two elder brothers which left him in the senior position in his family and sub-tribe — and further underlined in 1982 when he was appointed as producer of Koha.
TVNZ's Māori programmes were classed as special projects until 1985, when the corporation's Committee on Māori Broadcasting recommended establishing the position of a 'Head of Māori Unit'. The move attracted considerable criticism — particularly from the Māori Broadcaster's Association who were incensed the proposed unit wouldn't have the status of the broadcaster's other programme departments, and that the head of the unit would be on a lesser grading.
Ernie Leonard was a senior producer and in line to head up the new unit, but his initial inclination was not to apply for the post on such terms. He changed his mind — but his application was a 23-page document stating he would only take on the job if it was on equal footing with other departments. TVNZ relented and Leonard was appointed head of the Māori Programmes Department — although initially he was still expected to produce and occasionally direct Koha, as well as setting up a new department.
In April 1990 Leonard returned to the screen after a seven-year gap to front 'Panui', a weekly segment on Marae that mixed whimsy, sarcasm and serious comment as it looked at media coverage of Maori issues.
Sickness forced his early retirement in April 1994, at which point a search of the TVNZ Archives database yielded 38,000 references to him — or programmes he had been associated with — and a printout that was 20cm thick.
Ernie Leonard said his proudest achievements were the establishment of the Te Rau Aroha marae at TVNZ, and production of the tribal history programme Waka Huia. He died after a short battle with cancer on 15 July 1994. He was 62.
Audrey Gordon, (Interview) - NZ Woman's Weekly, May 16 1983, page 36
Toni McRae, ‘Two Men, Two Different Paths’ - Tu Tangata, Issue 33, December 1986, page 34
Tony Potter, ‘Broadcaster saw Māori television come of age’ (Obituary) - The Sunday Star Times, 17 Jul 1994, page C5
Tainui Stephens, ‘Ernie Leonard – He Poroporoaki’ (Obituary) - Onfilm, August 1994, page 19 (Volume 11, Number 7)
Unknown Writer, ‘Producer returns to Things Maori’ (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 25 October 1982, Section 1, page 19
Unknown Writer, 'Television’s Rangitira Looks To Society’s Grass Roots’ (Interview) - The Auckland Star, 18 January 1986, page 44